Saturday, May 17, 2008

Gathering bamboo shoots

Bamboo thickets (竹) are often found around Japanese temples. The delicate blow of the wind in the leaves and the beautiful light create a peaceful atmosphere well suited to such places. This astonishing plant is also put to less spirirtual uses. It has the fastest growing rate of all species, up to a meter per day. Some people in Asia use it as an awful way of torturing prisoners. Light and strong, bamboo is also used in China as scaffolding for buildings. Also, bamboo shoots (竹の子) are a delicate spring meal in Japan, where they are harvested in April. In this story, we are leaving today for the Boso Peninsula (房総半島) near Tokyo with a spade, a large basket and gloves to pick fresh shoots.
Some species of bamboo only flower every fifty year or so. This is considered of bad omen in traditional agricultural societies with good reasons. The large increase of bamboo fruits means a boom in rodent populations, which will often devastate the harvests. Also, the death of all bamboos after their flowering will leave local cottage industries that use it as a raw material idle. Between two flowerings, bamboo is extending by creating clones. During the spring, each bamboo will create a few of them. Those are linked to their parent by the root at the start of their life. In the first days, only a small green cone 4 centimeters high is appearing out of the ground. The bamboo shoot should be gathered at that time, as it is still tender. When a bigger cone is out of the ground, it is already too late, as the plant has started to solidify.
To harvest a shoot, we should first dig around 30 centimeters deep. It is important not to break the precious shoot when digging. Then, the shoot should be separated from the parent. It is possible to see the direction of the parental root by looking at the leaves at the top of the bamboo shoot. They are curved in the direction of the parent. To separate the shoot, we should hit vigorously with the spade at the base of the shoot in the side of the parent.
An afternoon of gathering will make for a pleasant work-out in the Japanese country-side. Private bamboo plantations will allow visitors to pick bamboo shoots for a few hundred yens. The gathering is quite exhausting, and your hands may suffer a little if you are not used to gardening. A pair of all-purpose gloves (軍手) will come in handy, and can be bought in all gardening or do-it-yourself stores. A big basket will also help you bring back the shoots, and you should plan for a large pan to boil them.
You will find the bamboo shoots in many different Japanese meals. Before cooking, the shoots should be boiled in water during one or two hours, with some rice bran (米ぬか) in the water. The soonest you can boil them, the more tasty the will be. You should leave the shoots in the pan one night after boiling them, and then peel them.
One simple recipe is Bamboo shoot rice. Wash 3 cups of rice (540 ml), and put them in the rice cookers. Add two large spoons each of sake (酒), mirin and soy sauce (醤油), and around one cup of bamboo shoots cut in fine slices. Add two slices of fried tofu (油揚げ) and two large spoons of dashi. Add water up to the level indicated by the rice cooker. After the rice has cooked, stir it gently, and wait for 30 minutes before cooking. It is also possible to cook rice in a pan on very gentle fire with the same volume of water and rice.
Access to a bamboo plantation: “Yamada” park in Yokosuka can be accessed easily by public transport and car from Tokyo. It is open everyday from 10am to 5pm. Entrée fee is 500 Yens per person, and you can use the tools provided by the park for the harvest. Le parc can be accessed from the Keihin Kyuko line (京浜急行), YRP Nobi (野比) station. You can then take the bus bound for TsushinKenkyusho (通信研究所) or YokosukaShiminByoin (横須賀市民病院) et stop at « Sengen Jinja » (浅間神社). Owner : M Sato Yamada 山田聡 (phone : 090.1530.3576. Address : 6-33-12 Nagesawa, Yokosuka, Kanagawa 239-0842神奈川県横須賀市長沢6-33-12). Site : There are of course many alternatives that can be searched on the internet.
Warning : Raw bamboo shoots can be poisonous. You should avoid pick them in the wild, and go to a serious bamboo plantation. It is required to cook thoroughly the shoots in boiling water, which destroys the toxic element. Both shoots bought in supermarket and those harvested by yourself should be cooked. It is normal that a slight ammoniac smell is emitted during the boiling, so you should take care to air your kitchen appropriately.

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