China / Life

Spring rain and bamboo shoots

By Pauline D Loh (China Daily Europe) Updated: 2017-04-16 14:36

Editor's note: China is divided into as many culinary regions as there are different ethnic groups. Its geographical diversity and kaleidoscopic cultural profiles contribute to an unending banquet of flavors.

Bamboo is one of the most recognized graphic symbols of China. This giant grass is native to the Middle Kingdom, and every single part is of economic value, from root to shoot.

Ancient craftsmen have long seen beauty in its gnarled roots and turned them into works of art. The main stems are used whole for furniture and construction, or spliced for weaving into baskets. Side branches are made into musical instruments and pipes or cutlery and utensils such as ladles, spoons and chopsticks.

The leaves are used to wrap food, like the famous rice dumplings eaten during Dragon Boat Festival.

Spring rain and bamboo shoots

More recently, bamboo fiber has been widely used to make clothes and linen, due to its soft texture and great absorbency.

The Chinese character is often likened to bamboo for its resilience and hardiness. A sprouting bamboo can grow half a meter tall overnight, and this natural marvel will bend in the strongest gales and not break.

But bamboo is most valued for its tender shoot, a truly unique ingredient that has been used in Chinese cooking for thousands of years.

You could probably write a whole book on bamboo and its role in Chinese literature, culture, geography and economy, but we only have room to concentrate on its edible shoots,

Bamboo shoots are harvested from many varieties of native bamboo, mostly from the warmer, wetter regions south of the Yangtze River to the outer edges of Yunnan province, the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region and as far as the island province of Hainan.

The giant bamboo, the most commonly found species around the Suzhou-Zhejiang region, produces huge squat shoots that wait underground during the cold season and need to be searched out like truffles. They can weigh as much as two kilograms each and are harvested mainly in early spring, although they are known as winter bamboo shoots, or dongsun.

Fujian province and the island of Taiwan also have swaths of giant bamboo and their shoots are definite favorites, eaten in a wide variety of ways.

Green bamboo and speckled bamboo are found even farther south, in Yunnan province; Sichuan, Jiangsu province; Guizhou province; and Guangxi. They are more slender and produce shoots that are equally slim. One variety is known as thunder shoots, leisun, because they materialize during spring thunderstorms. These are harvested in spring and immediately preserved or pickled, since they deteriorate very quickly.

Wherever there is enough water and heat, bamboo proliferates, and you can be sure its shoots are very much staples of the local culinary landscape.

In our Kunming garden, we have clumps of green bamboo, and we have seen firsthand how rapidly they grow. The shoots seem to gain height before your eyes, and a seemingly fragile spear can pierce through soil and turf with amazing speed.

Perhaps it is just as well that bamboo reproduces so rapidly, because its shoots are eaten as quickly as they appear.

In spring, for example, green bamboo shoots are harvested daily, stripped of their protective layers, sent downhill and immediately cooked and placed in pickling urns. These will become the sour bamboo shoots, or suansun, the ubiquitous side dish to almost every Guizhou noodle dish, including its famous snail-broth rice vermicelli, luosifen.

Elsewhere, the tender spears are pickled in brine. These are served chilled and become the popular appetizer shoubaosun, much beloved by the Shanghainese gourmet.

In Guangdong province, fresh bamboo shoots are scalded in saltwater and then sliced for stir-fries. Often, they are paired with tasty mushrooms for a rich-tasting but totally vegetarian dish.

I remember my grandmother rehydrating wrinkled, dried bamboo shoots she bought from Chinatown and braising them with pork. The slightly pungent bamboo shoots were called sunxia, or bamboo prawns. It was an intriguing name that stuck in my mind, and I later learned it was so called for its umami, or savory taste, and a flavor reminiscent of sweet seafood.

Bamboo shoots are available year round, but in spring they are most tender and flavorful. Later on, they will get sinewy with age, and a natural astringency will become more pronounced.

All fresh bamboo shoots must be parboiled for that reason, to get rid of the white crystals that sometimes hide within the inner nodes. These are harmless, being crystallized plant protein, but they tend to leave a bitter aftertaste. A pinch of salt added to the blanching liquid accentuates the sweetness of the bamboo shoots.

Preparing fresh bamboo shoots

If you are lucky enough to get fresh bamboo shoots in your local market, this is the best time to enjoy them. Use a sharp knife to cut the bamboo shoot in half. This allows you to strip off the loose leaves easily. You must remove all loose leaves, because only the solid heart is edible. Trim and peel the bamboo shoot and quarter it. Drop it into a pot of boiling water with a teaspoon of salt added and boil for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the size of the shoot. Drain well. Cool and keep in a zip-lock bag or covered container in the refrigerator, for stir-fries, stews or soups.

Shanghai Oil-Braised Bamboo Shoots

300 g prepared fresh bamboo shoots

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 or 2 dried chilis

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon light soya sauce

1 teaspoon sesame oil

Salt to taste.

Cut bamboo shoot into thick wedges. Heat up oil in wok and sear the bamboo shoots. Add the whole dried chili. When the edges start to caramelize on the bamboo shoots, add sugar and soy sauce and toss to coat. Add salt to taste. Serve hot, or cold as a side dish. Good with rice congee.

Shunde Bamboo Shoot and Pork Stew

200 g dried bamboo shoots, soaked overnight

300 g pork ribs, cut into pieces

1 or 2 garlic cloves, minced

2 cubes fermented red bean curd, nanru or jiangdoufu

2 tablespoons good Chinese cooking wine

1 tablespoon sugar plus 1 teaspoon salt

Sesame oil

Squeeze out water from the rehydrated bamboo shoots and parboil them. Drain and cut into bite-size portions.

Combine fermented bean curd, Chinese wine, salt and sugar and mix into a paste.

Add a spoonful of oil to a hot wok and fry the garlic till fragrant. Add the pork ribs and sear to seal juices. Add bamboo shoots.

Next, add the fermented bean curd paste and toss to coat the pork ribs and bamboo shoots. Add enough water to just cover the ingredients and simmer till pork ribs are tender. Taste to adjust seasoning, and just before serving, add a drizzle of sesame oil.

Mushroom and Bamboo Shoot Stir-Fry

10 to 12 dried Chinese shiitake mushrooms

300 g prepared fresh bamboo shoots

Pinch of sugar

Chinese cooking wine

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 clove garlic, minced

Thinly slice mushrooms. Cut bamboo shoots into

slightly thicker wedges.

Heat up 2 to 3 tablespoons oil in a hot wok and fry garlic till fragrant. Sear mushrooms. Add bamboo shoots and stir-fry quickly. Season with a pinch of sugar, soy sauce and a splash of wine.

Reduce any excess liquid. Serve hot.

Bamboo shoots and mushrooms tend to like oil, so be generous.

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