Saturday, June 5, 2010

Growing, buying, cooking: bamboo

Bamboo is not quite the nemesis that people make it out to be. It’s a beautiful and sustainable material made into screens, furniture, flooring, paper, yarn, most anything. My father has a large stand of bamboo he’s taken advantage of by crafting his own natural brooms, serving spoons, garden trellises, tomato cages, and the cheapest high quality mulch around.

Unlimited supply of mulch!

There are two main types of bamboo – clumping and running. Clumping bamboo can be kept contained but the running type is what may give pause for concern. The running type of bamboo, which is what we typically envision when we think of bamboo, is spread by underground rhizomes that can run long and varying distances. As with many plants that send runners, new bamboo rhizomes are vigorous and can run deep. For someone like my father though, it poses no problem. Then again…he maintains an eight acre property and can afford to allow bamboo to happily reside in its several hundred square feet spot. In fact, the large stand greets visitors with a sense of serenity as it gently sways in a wind. For backyard gardeners though, it would be wise to either plant bamboo in a lovely container, to plant a clumping bamboo without fear of too much spreading, or to take the time and care to install a metal or concrete barrier so that running bamboo can grow in a contained space. The barrier would ideally be at least 60 mil thick, and at least 30 inches tall, peeking about 2 inches above ground.

New bamboo plantings need to watered regularly and kept from drying out. Aside from that, bamboo is not too fussy, and only asks for full sun. Bamboo can withstand cold and snowy seasons. In fact, during our last blizzard which dumped four feet of snow, I took notice of the bamboo pushed almost completely down to the ground and had a clear understanding of why bamboo is known as the great symbol of resiliency.

The versatile and resilient bamboo, once again standing tall

Clumping bamboo is typically harvested in summer/fall, while running bamboo is harvested in the spring at about 8 inches high. To harvest, cut at ground level. To make it simpler, do like my mom does – put on a pair of sneakers, and kick the bamboo shoots off – they’ll break off at ground level.

Bamboo shoots, ripe for the kicking!

Once harvested, bamboo shoots are best eaten within two to three days. To prepare the long, thin shoots of running bamboo, slice in half lengthwise as shown in the photo. Find the tip of the tender heart in the center of each side, and using your thumbs, cut the heart out of the bamboo shoot.

Bamboo shoots are a mainstay in Chinese cuisine. Bamboo shoots can be sliced in stir fry dishes, julienned in soups, and in any number of ways in between. Because bamboo shoots can be bitter and tough, it is necessary to cook them first (if you’re using canned shoots, first of all, you’ll be making an inferior dish - (I'm just saying!), and second of all, you won’t need to pre-cook).

Below, the recipe for braised short ribs and bamboo shoots. I almost laugh in anticipation of sharing this recipe as it is such a typical dish my mother loves to make - Extremely time-consuming, fairly complex, totally delicious, and quickly devoured. I urge you to make this dish using fresh bamboo at least once in your lifetime. It will give you an appreciation for bamboo shoots you could not gain otherwise.

Braised Short Ribs and Bamboo Shoots (serves 8-10)

1 pound short ribs, marinated for at least one hour
Marinade: 2T soy sauce, dash pepper, 1T sesame oil, 1T cornstarch

5 cups fresh bamboo shoots, peeled and pre-cooked (Boil in large pot of water for about 40 minutes, then drain and rinse in cold water. This step can be done ahead of time)

2T Shao Xing rice wine or sherry
2T rock sugar
1/8 cup dark soy sauce
½ T salt

2T cornstarch

Remove ribs from marinade and set marinade aside. In a large pot, brown ribs in oil. Add bamboo shoots and stir. Add marinade and water to just near the top of the meat and bamboo shoots. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat to simmer. Add the wine, rock sugar, soy sauce and salt. Simmer for an additional 45 minutes or until meat is tender and sauce has reduced by half. To thicken sauce, remove about ½ cup of sauce from the pot and stir in about 2T of cornstarch. Add to pot. Raise heat, add cornstarch mixture and stir while cooking for another few minutes. Serve with rice.


  1. My neighbor has beautiful bamboos growing in the front of his house. I often wonder if they are the running or clumping ones. They sure are lovely to look at. I bought a pot of bamboo 2 years ago and they died. Since then, I'm hesitant to buy another pot because they are so expensive, costing an upward of $100. And wow, your dad has 8 acres of land? I'd grow a bunch of bamboos if I had just 1 acre!

  2. I didn't realize the center of the bamboo shoot was used in cooking. I've only ever seen bamboo shoots in cans ;-) although there must be fresh ones in the Asian markets?

    I tried to grow about 3 or 4 different species of bamboo in huge containers once, but they all eventually died (some sooner than others). Maybe not enough sun. I just assumed they were species that weren't quite winter-hardy here.

    The spouse is opposed to planting bamboo directly in the ground, but hopefully I can change his mind with this post. I think it must be something like mint - it only gets out of control if you don't use it enough.

  3. Hi Wendy, this is all very interesting info. to me, as I didn't know anything about bamboo--other than the fact that there are 2 types. I recently planted some nandina (dwarf variety) and if I'm not mistaken, that is in the bamboo family? I doubt I'll grow bamboo here, but, it's interesting to know it can be done in this area--and that you can eat the hearts. Thanks for sharing about your mom and dad, too.

  4. Hi Wendy, I have always been told bamboo should be put in pots and I must say I have seen some extremely alarming examples of rampantness (rampanticity???). The recipe looks delicious and simple, so I look forward to trying it out using bamboo from the friends who are struggling to control it. Cheers, catmint

  5. Hi, Wendy!
    Your recipe looks yummy and I'm shocked to hear that bamboo is well behaved! I also thought it would consume the whole garden bed. :)

  6. Fascinating. All stuff I did not know about bamboo.

  7. Wendy: I have been trying to leave a comment for several of your posts now, but since I feel I have so much to say and seems always don't get much time, I did not write one until now! haha, bad excuse, huh?

    First of all, I love your head picture! The Edamame is always one of my favorite dishes, almost can eat it as snack :)

    Second, I want to say that I envy your determination and energy very much after reading your post about your biggest project you and your husband did to your backyard slope in the hot summer. The end result is so stunning, and it was done all by yourself! In my mind, you are the landscape architect already, not just in your dream :)

    From several of your posts I read, I guess you are a Chinese descendant? You may have noticed from my posts that I am also a Chinese. I came to US about 16 years ago as a graduate student. For this reason, I can related to lots of things you posted. Like this exact post! I too love cooking spare-ribs with bamboo shoots. The only thing for me is I no longer can find the fresh bamboo shoots here. Living in Florida is not very easy to find lots of Chinese cooking matarials since the Chinese population is not as large as they have in California and New York. Lucky you that you still can enjoy the typical Chinese dish from your Mom's cooking, and you have bamboo shoots readily available from your Dad's garden!!!

    Now you know why your last picture made me drooling over the keyboard. LOL

    I too love the bamboos very much. My hometown back in China (very close to Shanghai) has lots of bamboos grown in the park. The serenity it provides just so unforgetable. It fits Chinese garden style so perfectly. Until today, every time I think about that green waiving bamboo scene make me homesick... My dad used one old bamboo section made me a pen holder, and carved a Chinese poem with a traditional Chinese painting outline on it. I will sure treasure this piece for ever.

    I have a small garden, so even planting a clumping bamboo will be a little difficult for me.

    Sorry for a long comment :) You will see me coming here more often. I am glad that I found you :) I have added you to my sidebar bloglist, so I won't miss your new posts. You have a very lovely blog and a beautiful garden too. Oh, I enjoyed reading the posts about your dad's 8 acre land very much as well!

    Better stop here now... :)

  8. This is an informative and much appreciated post Wendy. I knew very little about bamboo and now feel a little more wiser. You pa certainly is a craftsman to transform bamboo into utensils. You must show off some pieces.

    I have never eaten tinned bamboo shoots. I promise to look out for fresh and give it a try one-day. Your recipe does look good, but I would have make it minus the meat :D Enjoy the rest of your week.

  9. I 2nd Ami in thinking that you have Chinese descent. I was amused with the kicking part for harvesting bamboo shoot but it's really practical and it breaks where it is still soft for cooking, that is the Chinese wisdom from experience. I did not know there are running bamboos! We have big and tall bamboos in the province but they are mainly used when old, maybe not the species for cooking. We have unused lands but very dry climateds maybe are not suited for bamboos. However, i also love to eat bamboo shoots, though we have some recipes different from yours. thank you.

  10. Well, I am not a fan of bamboo shoots but I must say that your information written here is really interesting. Your pictures of the bamboo shoots on the ground and cut are really nicely taken.

    My recent encounter with bamboo plant is when my friend moved to a new house. They had a row of bamboos grown at their compound to complete their minimalist house design. The garden look quite extraordinary ;-)

  11. My little garden is too small to house a cluster of real bamboo. But we do keep dwarf ornamental bamboo in pots with beautiful yellow green leaves to be in the company of bamboo lovers. Our favourite trellis are made of bamboo..., imported from kakdah's place. Lastly I love bamboo shoot cooked in the traditional way... exquisite!! ~bangchik

  12. Dinner at your house must be a constant adventure. We must try again to grow some bamboo.

  13. Thanks to everyone for visiting - and espeically for taking the time to comment!

    Entangled - You may be able to find giant bamboo in the Asian supermarkets. They look shorter and much much fatter. Perhaps they give more bang for the buck. Keep in mind that it took about a wheelbarrel full of bamboo in order to produce enough bamboo to cook this dish!

    Also, I dont' want you or anyone to get the wrong idea about bamboo. It will definitley spread. Runners will reach out at random lengths from the original plant.

    Like Catmint has mentioned, I also have some bamboo in my yard. It's very annoying b/c I don't want it. Where is it coming from? A family that planted bamboo. The original planting area is probably...a good 30 feet from where it's travelling now! But it's all just perspective. a 30 feet travel distance is not much if you have lots of acreage. For backyard gardeners, YES - DEFINITELY make an effort to keep it contained.

    Ami - thank you so much for your comment. It has meant a lot to me! I will write you back on your blog or through e-mail. I did really enjoy your story about the pen holder you dad made for you. It sounds just beautiful! I can also imagine how the sight, sound, etc of bamboo could bring back memories in an instant.

    Stephanie - I too love bamboo in a minimalist design.

  14. Hi Wendy~~ Nice post. I love those huge stands in areas that can support them.

    I've got a runner... Phyllostachys nigra or black bamboo in a galvanized wash tub. I couldn't pry it out if I tried. This year, five [so far] new shoots. Like most plants, it looks its best when I take car of it, keeping it watered and limbed up.

  15. My dad also has some black bamboo. It's just gorgeous.

  16. I do like bamboo and think it's one of the most useful plants out there. But I discourage it for the average homeowner because it's so invasive. One of our neighbors planted bamboo for screening purposes, and it's led to very unhappy relations with the neighbors on either side, because it has invaded their yards and keeps coming. But for those that have both the space and a way to keep it contained, it's a great and very multi-purpose plant.

  17. I enjoy eating bamboo shoots. Was introduced to it when I was working in Shanghai. I ate lotsa bamboo shoots there. Can easily get the fresh, tender ones in any wet market. I opt for canned ones when I crave for it. Like you said, the canned ones are inferior to the fresh ones.

    Back in Malaysia, I can't find fresh bamboo shoots on sale in our local wet market. Your photo of the stew makes me drool. I hope I could get some fresh bamboo shoots and cook it!

  18. Well, we officially experienced our first bamboo dish (just the other day) in Sapa, Vietnam. We made friends with some H'mong women who kindly invited us for lunch. Bamboo shoots was one of the dishes...and, they were really awesome. The cooking here (for the most part) blows me away and has been one of the best parts of our journey.

  19. Hi, I found your post doing a search after seeing fresh bamboo shoots at my local farmers market here in Seattle WA. I'd love to see photos of some of your dad's bamboo creations, like tomato cages, serving spoons, etc.

  20. I have been searching for information about harvesting and cooking bamboo shoots for a while. I have a lovely clump of bamboo in a back corner and kept looking at it knowing that I could eat it and having no idea how to go about it.


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