How to cook bamboo shoots (takenoko)

There are two Japanese vegetables that I can't get fresh here that I miss very much. One is burdock root or gobo; the other is bamboo shoot or takenoko (竹の子 or 筍). Bamboo shoots are very much a spring-only vegetable, much like asparagus, so around this time of year I always get a craving for the crunch and subtle flavor.

While fresh bamboo shoots haven't made their appearance at markets and stores in Zürich, it is possible to buy precooked bamboo shoots. (And the truth is, most Japanese people nowadays use convenient precooked bamboo shoots anyway. Fresh bamboo shoots start to go hard and somewhat bitter as soon as they are dug up.)

An added bonus: boiled bamboo shoots are so low in calories that you can put them on your 'eat as much as I want' list. 100 grams has about 12 calories and 1 gram of fiber.

Cooking fresh bamboo shoots

If you're lucky enough to live in an area where you can get fresh bamboo shoots, here's how to cook them.

  • Select bamboo shoots that are heavy and firm, with a fresh, firm outer skin. (Only about 2 or 3 kinds of bamboo varieties produce edible shoots, and they are all quite large and come from fairly old bamboos. You could experiment with bamboo shoots from your garden, but you do so at your own risk.)
  • Peel the tough outer skin off. Cut off the tough root end.
  • Put in a pot with enough of the white rinsing water from when you wash rice to cover. (Alternatively you can use plain water and put in some rice bran, wrapped in a cheesecloth.) Bring to a boil, and simmer for about an hour or more, until it is tender enough to poke a skewer through. (Some books suggest putting a couple of hot chili peppers in the simmering water; this is supposed to increase its sweetness, paradoxically.)
  • Let cool in the water; if you try to peel it while it's still hot, the shoot may split.
  • Any remaining outer skin should now peel off easily. You can then proceed and use the bamboo shoot in various dishes. Store in the cooking water until you're ready to use the bamboo shoots.

Using pre-cooked vacuum packed bamboo shoots

You can get canned bamboo shoots, but I much prefer the vacuum packed kind. They are a pale shadow of freshly cooked bamboo shoots, but they haave to do. They come packed in a little water. Leave the bamboo shoots in the vacuum pack until you're ready to use them.

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Essentially they have been cooked in the manner described above, and are ready to use. You may see some white gritty stuff in the inner folds - that's just rice residue. Rinse it out in water.

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Once you've opened a vacuum packed bamboo shoot, try to use it up right away.

Recipe: Takenoko Gohan (Bamboo shoot rice)

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Takenoko gohan is a quintessential spring dish. The rice is subtly perfumed by the bamboo shoot, which retains its crunchy texture. This can really make me homesick for Japan.

This is a method to cook it in a rice cooker. This is a vegan dish.

  • 3 rice cooker cups (1 cup = 180ml) rice (white rice is traditional, but you could use sprouted brown rice. If using regular brown rice, soak it overnight.)
  • 3 dried shiitake mushrooms, pre-soaked until soft
  • 1/2 small to medium cooked bamboo shoot (about 4 oz / 120g)
  • 1 Tbs. sake
  • 1 Tbs. mirin
  • 1 Tbs. soy sauce
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp. salt (less salt if you intend to eat this as part of a Japanese meal with other salty things; more if this is served as a side-dish Western style)
  • The soaking liquid from the shiitake, plus added water if needed

Wash the rice and drain in a sieve.

Drain off the dried shiitake, reserving the soaking liquid. Add to the rice in the rice cooker, and top up with water if needed to bring it up to the 3-cup level mark. Add the sake, mirin, soy sauce and salt. Let the rice soak for at least 30 minutes. (Overnight if you're using regular brown rice.)

In the meantime, chop up the shiitake and cut the bamboo shoot half into bitesize pieces. Add to the rice, and cook using regular cooking settings.

Let rest for at least 10 minutes after cooking, and them fluff up to mix.

Recipe: Bamboo shoot and snap pea stir fry with bacon

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The other half of the bamboo shoot can be used in a stir-fry or a miso soup. Here's a simple stir fry that uses another spring vegetable, snap peas. The bacon makes it not very vegetarian. You can leave it out for a vegan version.

  • 1/2 small to medium cooked bamboo shoot (about 4 oz / 120g), sliced
  • 2 cups snap peas, de-veined if needed and trimmed
  • 2 slices bacon, cut into small pieces
  • 1/2 cup white parts of spring or green onions sliced
  • 1 Tbs. oil
  • 1 Tbs. soy sauce
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • pepper
  • a few drops of chili oil

Head up the oil in a wok. Add the bacon and cook until just about crisp. Add the onion, stir fry a couple of minutes. Add snap peas and stir fry until bright green and crisp-tender. Add bamboo shoots, soy sauce and salt and pepper, and the chili oil, and take off the heat.

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