There are hundreds of bamboo species, which is a variety of giant grass, but only a few are used in the kitchen. These include; Bambusa vulgaris, Phyllostachys edulis, P. pubescens and Dendrocalamus asper.
Bamboo shoots are used in dishes right throughout Asia, but their spiritual and culinary home lies in China where they have been eaten for well over a thousand years. The Seventeenth Century Chinese gourmet Li Yu, summed up the appeal of bamboo shoots by referring to them as the "Queen of vegetables". He goes on to add that the shoots have a special capacity to absorb the fragrance of other ingredients, particularly meat, while retaining their own crisp texture.
There are three varieties of bamboo shoot, sold according to the season in which they were harvested. The most prized is winter bamboo shoots, or doeng sun. They are the smallest shoots, no larger than a pine cone with delicately sweet, pale flesh. Spring bamboo shoots mo sun, are correspondingly larger and deeper in colour, almost yellow. Summer shoots jook sun are also known as hairy shoots due to their fuzzy exterior. This variety is seldom found outside China.
Bamboo shoots are purchased in several fashions. Canned will most likely be the one familiar to you. Canned shoots are available either shredded, in thin strips or the whole shoot itself. It is also possible to purchase plastic bags of the dried shoots. These need to be re-hydrated in cold water for 1 hour before using.
The best form to buy bamboo shoots is fresh. It really is worth a trip to an Asian grocer, or pester your greengrocer to order them in for you. Fresh shoots need to be prepared before use. It is a detailed procedure, but in no way difficult. Many varieties of bamboo contain hydrocyanic acid, which is removed by boiling. To be on the safe side, always cook fresh bamboo.
How to prepare fresh bamboo shoots
The fresh shoot is covered by a thick husk, which ranges in colour from yellow to khaki to deep green. They vary in shape and size; some are squat pyramids, while others are more elongated. They range from 10 to 30 cm in length. If you have only encountered the canned variety their appearance will come as a surprise.
Firstly, the husk needs to be removed. Using a small sharp knife, peel away the layers until you have reached the pale yellow shoot. Trim away the base and any fibrous sections. Lay the shoot on a chopping board horizontally and using a large sharp cooks knife, cut the shoot into thin (5 mm) slices running from tip to base. If these slices are especially long you may want to cut them into more manageable lengths. Place the slices into a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to the water to the boil, then drain away the liquid. Repeat this procedure twice, but on the third boil add a generous pinch of sea salt to the cold water. Once they have come to the boil for the third time, allow them to cool in the liquid, but don't drain it away. This is the brine that the shoots will be stored in. They will last, covered in the refrigerator for up to one week.
Apart from the delightfully segmented patterns that you will only find in fresh bamboo shoots, it is worth preparing your own to taste the superbly sweet flavour that make this the giant pandas favourite food.