In our household, thanks to the movie Last Christmas, the Wham song of the same name has been blasted on repeat by my children. Every sentence they speak to me starts off with them singing the first lines too. It was very cute, then annoying. But it does make me reflect on what a doozy the change in our environment has been this year.
This time last year, we were harvesting on average 400kg of bamboo shoots. We grew four different varieties on the farm, despite the drought conditions of the previous winter. This year, any shoots that tried to emerge from the soil have shrivelled and died back. As the drought worsens, we will not be harvesting any at all this season.
I miss those bamboo shoots very much; they are completely a different taste experience to the canned sort. A fresh bamboo shoot is not only a textural wonder, akin to tender palm hearts, it has a faint scent reminiscent of hay and young corn.
My very favourite variety, the nastus elatus, originates from Papua New Guinea and is referred to colloquially as sweet bamboo. This variety is one of the few that can be eaten raw, due to their lack of cyanogenic glycosides which makes most uncooked bamboo varieties bitter.
Should you stumble across fresh shoots that aren’t nastus elatus, don’t let the effort of cooking out the bitterness deter you from buying them.
Cooking them involves shredding the shoot, then boiling it, steeping it, changing the water and repeating the process (sometimes multiple times) until all the bitterness has seeped away.
But they are worth every bit of hard yakka, and one shoot will yield you multiple meals.
The significance of bamboo shoots touches my heart. They’re a common food source all throughout Asia, generally harvested in the beginning of spring, which is also when an abundance of other crops come into production.
The act of harvesting this grass is a poetic meditation on gentleness
I often ponder what made humans think that this shoot emerging from the ground was a desirable food source. Was it subsistence after a hard winter? Was it the animals burrowing down to gnaw at the shoots which made the humans notice?
Incidentally bamboo shoots are best harvested by carefully digging around the underexposed culm beneath the ground, just as the tips start to poke through the forest floor mulch. They are sweetest before the shoot is exposed to sunlight or air, and contain less cyanogenic glycosides. The act of harvesting this grass is a poetic meditation on gentleness.
Bamboo is also symbolic of strength, resilience, humility, prosperity and grace. The Japanese proverb says “a bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists”. The Chinese still to this day use it as scaffolding to build skyscrapers. Perhaps by consuming it, our ancestors thought we might absorb some of its powers.
In Japanese, the literal translation for the word bamboo shoot “takenoko” is “bamboo child”. Bamboo appears in many traditional stories. The best-known is The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, thought to be the oldest narrative literature in Kana script. It’s about a bamboo child-princess found by a barren couple in the forest, and the story forms the basis of the Studio Ghibli film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.
My lovely and talented friend, the aesthete chef Shinobu Namae-san of L’effervescence and Bricolage in Tokyo, created this gut-wrenchingly beautiful dish (pictured below) symbolising the transition from winter to spring, with white Chinese cabbage representing winter, and bamboo shoots spring. The vegetables were linked by wakame seaweed, which is ever-present between late winter and early spring. Exquisite, yes?
Bamboo plays an important part in so many cultures. That’s why seeing this evergreen grass, seemingly an indestructible crop, losing its leaves this year is alarming. In my subtropical climate on the eastern seaboard of Australia I have never witnessed something like this before.
I hope they have fared better in the other parts of Australia. I will keep a keen eye out for them at markets. It’s human nature to want the unattainable. This year all I seem to want (to eat) for Christmas are bamboo shoots.
Bamboo shoot, pork and prawn wontons
1 packet wonton wrappers
700g organic ground pork 30% fat
300g raw king prawns
, shelled and roughly chopped
300g bamboo shoots
, roughly chopped
150g black wood ear mushrooms
, if dried then soaked and fine sliced
1 organic egg beaten
1 head of organic garlic
40g fresh organic ginger
2 coriander roots
, pounded to a fine paste
2 tbs best quality sesame oil
2 tbs best quality light soy sauce
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp ground white pepper
Mix all ingredients well, except the wonton wrappers! Then chill for an hour or more. Once chilled, place a wonton wrapper in your hand and, using a teaspoon, scoop the filling into the middle of the wrapper. Fold the wonton edges to meet in a triangle, pinch and fold again.
In a pot of boiling water, gently place the wontons and cook for approximately four minutes or until they float to the top. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain well.
For the dressing:
3 stalks spring onions
(cut off the roots and replant into a pot on your window sill or better yet into a garden). Finely slice the whole stem, green and white parts
2 tbs sesame oil
2 tbs light soy sauce
3 tbs Chinese red rice vinegar
2 tbs chilli oil
2 tbs shallot oil
Whisk together all the ingredients above, excluding the spring onions. Serve on a platter with the dressing poured over and scatter the spring onions. I would recommend 4-6 wontons per person as a starter.