Bamboo shoots can basically be thought of as baby bamboo. These have been an important source of food in Asia for over 2,500 years.They are the very young and pale yellow beginnings of a bamboo “tree.” Keep in mind that bamboo is really a very tall and woody grass, not a tree. There is a staggering number of different bamboo varieties, but only a few are edible. At the early stage, when the bamboo is first shooting up from the ground, these shoots have a tender heart, which is the part that is eaten.
Bamboo shoots are cultivated in Asia and are harvested either in the spring or winter, as soon as the tips appear above the ground. The spring shoots are pale and wider than the winter shoots, which have a more elongated shape. Many cooks prefer winter shoots as they are considered to be more tender.
At one time, fresh bamboo was not available outside of Asia, but now we can sometimes find it it at Asian markets. If found, this will probably be bamboo shoots packaged in vacuum-sealed plastic bags. More fresh looking bamboo shoots sold loose are a more rare find. You may also find “fresh” bamboo being sold out of bins covered in water.
Although you may be used to canned bamboo shoots, fresh bamboo can be a bit daunting, as the outer layers must be peeled away to reveal the more tender inner heart. As well, since the word fresh actually means bamboo that may or may not have already been boiled, you may have to pre-boil packaged fresh bamboo or those sold from bins to soften them up enough for use.
There are both sweet and bitter varieties, so boiling may be necessary to get rid of any bitterness. It is even possible for a variety that produces sweet shoots early in the season to turn bitter later in the season. Much depends on the weather and soil condition, so you can never be sure.
The bitter taste comes from small amounts of hydrogen cyanide, otherwise known as prussic acid.
Bamboo is one of many plants that produce this cyanogens, which mix with enzymes in the plant when the cells are managed and produce the bitter and danger hydrogen cyanide, as a defense against predators. This compound is very toxic to humans and other animals and, although death may not always occur, symptoms of poisoning can include constriction of the throat, nausea, vomiting, and headache.
Although bamboo is likely to only contain small amounts, this, together with deciding if the bamboo is tender enough to forego boiling, makes for a conundrum. You can check for tenderness by pressing with a thumbnail to see if there is give in the flesh. However, you would have to taste the bamboo to see if it is bitter. Although a small taste will not likely be harmful, it is best not to take this kind of chance. So, after cutting into smaller pieces, boil fresh bamboo for at least 7 minutes just to make sure.
Since, however, fresh bamboo is likely to be tough, you will have to boil them before use regardless. Boil the inner hearts for 7 to 20 minutes, depending on tenderness, and then rinse in cool water.
Dried bamboo shoots such as these Pochy Dried Baby Bamboo Shoots are also available and must be soaked for several hours to rehydrate before use. The dried variety is used so that Asian cooks can have bamboo in the off seasons, and this also allows easy shipping to other areas, including the United States. The flavor, however, is different that what you would get from fresh or canned bamboo shoots. Some Southeast Asian recipes, such as Vietnamese, may actually call for dried bamboo shoots. You can easily substitute canned, although the flavor will not be exactly the same.
When purchasing dried bamboo shoots, make sure you do not get another product, dried bamboo fungus, which is also called stinkhorn fungus. This is another ingredient used in Chinese and other Asian cooking, which comes from the fruiting body of a fungus called Dictyophora phalloidea. This fungus grows on some kinds of bamboo. It is, of course, nutritious and perfectly good to eat, with an earthy taste and a nice, crunchy texture. It just isn’t a substitute for bamboo shoots. I have seen, however, dried bamboo fungus mistakenly labelled as bamboo shoots. You probably would recognize the difference at a glance, however, since the fungus looks like lacy strands instead of muddy yellow fibrous strips, as do dried bamboo shoots.
Substitute for Fresh Bamboo Shoots
If you cannot find fresh bamboo shoots, the simplest substitute is canned bamboo shoots. You can usually buy these in the international section of any large supermarket, or well-stocked small market. However, you will probably only find small cans with the bamboo shoots cut into flat uniform slices or long strips. A better choice may be larger cans of bamboo shoot tips such as Aroy-D Bamboo Shoot Tips. These can be cut into the size and shape you want, and they are more likely to be an early winter bamboo, and more tender. Even with canned, as above, there is sometimes a hint of bitterness and it may be more likely with the canned whole bamboo shoot tips. You can take care of this with boiling, as above.
Of course, if you are not that particular about your bamboo shoots, than any common canned bamboo slices or strips should suffice, and no preparation is likely to be needed with grocery store varieties.
Storing Leftover Bamboo Shoots
To store any leftover canned bamboo shoots, place them in a plastic container covered with fresh water, not water from the can. Seal well and keep in the refrigerator for several days, but not longer than one week.
Fresh bamboo, unboiled, has traditionally been stored in China by placing the shoots in cold water that is changed daily and storing in a cold, dark room. You can, however, store fresh bamboo shoots in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for one to two weeks.
You can store boiled or blanched fresh bamboo shoots loose in plastic containers or bags in the fridge, and they will last at least as long as fresh, if not longer. You can also freeze them for a much longer period.
Removing the Outer Leaves from Fresh Bamboo Shoots
You can remove the outer leaves, which are a bit like layers of scales, from bamboo shoots one leaf at a time. Some cooks may choose to split the bamboo down the middle first so that the outer leaves will come away much easier. However, this will mean that your bamboo heart will be split as well and depending on how tough the shoot is, splitting it may not be so easy.
The video below shows a cook in Georgia both harvesting and preparing fresh bamboo shoots. The shoots come from a nursery Savannah. Bamboo was introduced to the Southern United States early in the 19th century. It grew wild in stands in many areas of the woods where I grew up in Mississippi. We never ate it, of course, but only use mature bamboo for fishing poles. Not much industry or food use ever came out of the Southern bamboo, but according the comments for the video, the bamboo from this Savannah nursery contains no cyanide, being a temperate variety.
Amy Lou, the cook, begins peeling the bamboo sheets at around 1:20. After she removes the outer leaves, Amy continues trimming some of the tougher parts still remaining. She cuts away part of the base as this part can be too tough too eat. She cuts all the way through the bamboo shoot, at one point, and reveals the hollow center, but only by accident, not intentionally. No big deal! She makes it look easy but don’t be surprised if it is not.
Peeled fresh bamboo shoot image © khumthong