All About Bamboo
Bamboo continues to be one of the most versatile plants in the world. Though China is better known for its relationship with bamboo, 2011 figures from the State Forest Report reveal that India is the world’s second richest country in bamboo biodiversity. It houses 136 species; 125 of which are indigenous and 11 being exotic. Most of India’s green sound bamboos reside in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, and Mizoram, respectively. Though roughly half of the country’s bamboo is concentrated in East India, all of the states house the plant in varying density.
Origin of Bamboo
Bamboo originated from prehistoric grass dating back million years. According to a 2013 Science Daily article, bamboo plants formed and spread on Gondwana, a supercontinent that existed between 510 and 180 million years ago. This landmass included present-day South America, Africa, Arabia, Madagascar, India, Australia, and Antarctica. Some botanists speculate that most of bamboo originates in China, as this is where the greatest diversity of the plants resides. Indeed, China’s history records some of bamboo’s earliest uses, from paper to clothing to food. Others, however, theorize that most of China’s bamboo came from India, when the strains hopped from one continent to another during a great tectonic plate collision. Adding to the confusion, bamboo plants warranting their own genus were also found in Africa. Disentangling the plant’s muddled ancient history continues to be a passion of botanists around the world.
Today, China is the world’s bamboo powerhouse, exporting a number of plant-related materials: Flooring, vegetables, clothing and textiles, furniture, pulps, and paper, to name a few. Other leaders include Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Burma, and Japan.
Availability of Bamboo Shoots
Availability of bamboo shoots is primarily based on region: in the rural areas of the Northeast, one has approximately ten common varieties available for consumption. They also tend to be one of the cheapest vegetables on the market. In urban areas, only one or two will be on offer, it at all. The bamboo industry is fragmented and woefully lacking in central coordination. Despite the country’s massive potential to partake in a $15 billion annual industry, it remains off the radar as a bamboo exporter.
A few regions feature the shoots as an integral part of their cuisine. Such is the case in Assam, the Malnad region of Karnataka, the Diyun region of Arunachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Nagaland, Manipur, and Western Orissa. In these areas, tribal groups prepare shoots in a number of ways from pickling, frying, and to steaming.
As explained by botanist and bamboo nutrition expert, Dr. Chongtham, “urban people do not prefer it due to reasons like lack of easy availability in the vegetable market, difficult to clean and [to] get the soft edible part from the harvested shoots, short shelf life, and unpleasant smell.” In cities, most Indians are only acquainted with this vegetable by frequenting Chinese food restaurants, and few urban produce shops offer bamboo shoots.
When they do appear, they arrive during the monsoon season (typically June though October). It is possible to find canned bamboo in specialty stores and ones catering to expats.
By themselves, bamboo shoots are too bitter and tough for consumption. Once prepared, however, they have a mild, unassuming flavor with notes of sweetness and nuttiness. Unlike water chestnuts, they are savory and crunchy. Their closest taste counterpart is heart of palm, though bamboo shoots are more fibrous.
Rare winter shoots are especially prized, possessing more tenderness and sweetness than their spring counterparts.
Nutritional Value of Bamboo Shoots
According to the USDA nutrient database, 100g of bamboo shoots contain the following values:
5.3g Carbs (2% RDI)
2.2g Fiber (9% RDI)
.3g Fat (Neg)
20mg Omega-3 Fatty Acids
114mg Omega-6 Fatty Acids
2.6g Protein (5% RDI)
20IU Vitamin A (neg)
4mg Vitamin C (7% RDI)
1mg Vitamin E (5% RDI)
.2mg Thiamin (10% RDI)
.1mg Riboflavin (4% RDI)
.6mg Niacin (3% RDI)
.2mg Vitamin B6 (12% RDI)
7mcg Folate (2% RDI)
.2mg Pantothenic Acid (2% RDI)
13mg Calcium (1% RDI)
.5mg Iron (3% RDI)
3mg Magnesium (1% RDI)
59mg Phosphorous (6% RDI)
533mg Potassium (15% RDI)
1.1mg Zinc (7% RDI)
.2mg Copper (9% RDI)
.3mg Manganese (13% RDI)
Bamboo comes with a number of health benefits, exploited in both Chinese medicine and Ayurveda. Circa 300 BC, one of the earliest Ayurvedic practitioners, Charaka, made a paste of leaves or seeds to treat poisonous bites and kill intestinal worms. Traditionally, the shoots also treat bronchial and respiratory ailments. Healers have also used tabasheer—a sappy substance formed from the nodal joints of bamboo—for centuries as an aphrodisiac and coolant. Tibetans call tabasheer “bamboo mana” and they use it as a stimulant, febrifuge, and antispasmodic.
According to the book, “Indian Herbal Remedies,” bamboo nodes treat amenorrhea, and bamboo mana is prescribed for combatting bronchitis, vitiated blood, jaundice, edema, ulcers, and skin ailments. Bamboo root acts as an astringent and coolant, whereas the leaves alleviate menstrual pain and disorders.
In Chinese medicine, bamboo shavings clear heat, reduces phlegm, manages fevers, convulsions, and vomiting. The bamboo sap (tabashir) is used for similar reasons. It too alleviates fever and phlegm, while also treating loss of consciousness and coughs.
Selecting Bamboo Shoots
Once the sun hits the stalk, its chemical composition changes. Thus, every shoot must be harvested in a window of two to three weeks, else they become too tough and woody. Bamboo shoots come in various shapes and sizes: The winter bamboo is fat and thick, whereas spring bamboo is thinner and longer.
Use thick, short bamboo in braises and soups, as this is the best choice for their crisp texture. Use the thin, tender spring bamboo as a blanched delicacy for use in appetizers, entrees, and soups.
Different parts of the bamboo—the tip, soft skin, the body, and the base—are used for different recipes, too, as each differ in texture. For hors d’oeuvres and marinades, the soft skin is preferable. The tip, on the other hand, features in stews. The body is ideal for grilled and stewed items. As for the base, it is ideal for rice dishes and frying.
When buying freshly prepared bamboo shoots, it is imperative to use them within two to three days. They will spoil shortly thereafter.
If selecting whole bamboo shoots, select the ones with golden tips—their exposure to the sun has not been as long as the ones with green tips, and will thus be sweeter. Additionally, opt for curved shoots over straight ones. These too will be sweeter. Inspect the base of the vegetable and only select if sufficiently white; avoid black, soft ends. The shoot should be firm and its texture consistent.
Note: Opt for vacuum-packed bamboo shoots over canned ones. The taste will be fresher, and no metallic aftertaste lingers in the former.
Whole bamboo shoots require “peeling,” as the desired part of the vegetable is the white inner core. Use a large, sharp knife to cut a quarter of an inch from the thick base. Also cut the tip. Like one would for a plantain, make an incision from the tip to the base. Peel back the sheaths, and remove the white core. Use a smaller paring knife to remove any residual discolored pieces.
Next, remove the bitterness—raw shoots contain hydrocyanic acid, and must therefore be prepared in a way that rids the toxins. The first method is by soaking in water for three days, rotating the water daily. The second is by boiling the shoots in water and a drop of oil for at least an hour. Though some warn that this will overcook the shoot, others mention enduring gruesome stomachaches from eating undercooked bamboo. If the shoots have been soaked in water beforehand, the long cooking time will not be necessary. Some also add chili powder to increase its sweetness.
Recipe Ideas and Uses
--Make a classic Assamese dish of bamboo shoots and lentils: Soak and pressure-cook red lentils; and on the side, boil diced bamboo shoots. Heat mustard oil and mustard seeds, adding broken chili and garlic once spluttered. Add the bamboo shoots and stir fry gently for a minute. Next, combine the lentils, salt, sugar, and ginger. Serve with rice.
--One classic Coorg dish is another variation of curry, but this time with coconut: boil the bamboo shoots and set aside. Dry roast coriander seeds, cumin, fenugreek, and red chilis. Transfer the spices to a blender along with coconut, tamarind, water, and turmeric powder. Mix until a paste forms. Add this paste to cooked dal and the bamboo shoots. Simmer until thick and creamy.
--The Manipuri version of this curry is to combine the boiled shoots with gravy of tomato, potato, onions, garlic, and a masala blend.
--Create a savory Thai salad using shredded bamboo: combine the cooled shoots with soy sauce, lime juice, sesame seeds, sesame or coconut oil, peanut, ground chili powder, jaggery, scallions, red onion, and basil. Serve chilled.
--Or, substitute bamboo shoots in raw Thai papaya or mango salad recipes.
--Add bamboo shoots in Chinese stir fry dishes: stir the vegetables using a seasoning of soy sauce, lime juice, sesame oil, rice vinegar, garlic, and ginger.
--Add bamboo shoots to a clear soup recipe made with vegetable broth, mushrooms, spring onion, carrot, and tofu.
--Make a bamboo fry by stirring it in a base of dried coconut, coriander and mustard seeds, jaggery, tamarind, curry leaves, and salt.
Soy, ginger, garlic, miso, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, mustard seed, lime, coconut, salt, pepper, sesame oil, coconut oil, rice vinegar, dal
Mizoram locals have a dark saying about bamboo: flowering bamboo is a prelude to death, destruction and famine. Perhaps this saying arises from the fact that bamboo plants die shortly after flowering.
Over 200 bamboo varieties produce edible shoots.
Support for bamboo-based initiatives is rising in the country. As a sustainable, renewable resource, several initiatives have cropped up to support bamboo-based enterprises. According to a 2013 article in the “Times of India, growers in the northeast state of Tripura have banned together to package shoots for distribution to large hotel chains and restaurants. The Tripura Bamboo Mission is but one of a few groups in the country making plant-based crafts, furniture, and mats. According to its site, bamboo-related activities employ 8 million Indians.
Bamboo has 1,500 uses, from flooring to support beams to chopsticks.
Season 5 episode 14 of the original Iron Chef features bamboo shoot as its battle ingredient.