After a long cold winter most of us are excited about the new feeling that comes during Spring. Flowers and leaves are the most visible sign of new life however deep within the forests of Asia bamboo shoots burst forth with hope. This is only visible to the trained eye as they are camouflaged by the forest floor. Each morning at the break of dawn farmers and rural dwellers in Japan grab a sac and a pointed shovel and head to the forest to look for new growths. It is best to pick in the morning as bamboo shoots will be less bitter.
They are quick growing shoots so it is also important to check everyday in order to pick them before they become too woody. Note the different types of bamboo shoots each appearing at different times in the Spring. Mountain Bamboo Shoot appears later on and is more narrow and long.
To pick a bamboo shoot actually involves precision extraction with a pointy nose shovel. Plant the nose of the shovel a few centimetres from the bottom of the bamboo shoot and at a 45° angle. Plant your food and drive the shovel quickly and cleanly into the lower root. Withdraw and repeat the same action on the opposite side of the bamboo shoot. Sometimes it takes 3 or 4 approaches to cleanly remove the shoot from its base. The idea is to remove the shoot unbroken and leave the remainder of the root in the ground for future year’s harvest.
Once picked head back to the house and hose off the color-staining outer leaves along with any dirt or bugs. The longer they are kept uncooked the more the bitterness increases. Now they are ready to braise in a sturdy cast iron pot of hours to soften their texture, remove bitterness and add aromatic flavor. Cooking slowly allows all of this to happen without overcooking and damaging the delicate flavors and textures of bamboo shoots.
Fresh bamboo shoots contain elements of hydrocyanic acid which tastes bitter in the mouth. To remove this toxin the bamboo shoot need to be cooked with rice bran flour – called nuka (nooka) in Japan. The rice bran’s starch removes absorbs the toxin from bamboo shoot during cooking. Adding dried red pepper also helps remove any bitterness from bamboo shoot. This is one of those traditional process that doesn’t seem obvious but works really well in practice.