Racing against time with bamboo
2018-04-13 08:38:00

Editor's note:

Traditional and fusion cooking styles, regional and international ingredients and a new awareness of healthy eating are all factors contributing to an exciting time for Chinese cuisine. We explore the possibilities.

The bamboo grove in our garden is enjoying the spring rain too much. It is sending up shoots faster than we can harvest. One day too late, and the slender shoots grow another 50 centimeters, turning fibrous and inedible.

If you catch them as they just emerge, the bamboo shoots are tender, juicy and full of flavor.

From left: Shoubasun; Bamboo shoots must be processed as soon as they are harvested, or they will quickly deteriorate once out of the ground; Stir-fried suansun with meat strips. Photos Provided to China Daily

Bamboo grows all over China, and, despite its height, is actually a grass. It is quick-growing and covers large tracts of land all over southern and southwestern China.

It is a versatile material that is used in everything from whole houses to baskets as small as a cricket's cage. Bamboo is made into furniture, such as complete sets of tables and chairs, as well as ladders, hoes, trays and mats. Its uses are legion and sometimes unexpected.

In Sichuan, for example, a specialty is tiny, delicate and spoonlike contraptions that are designed to clean the inside of ears.

Apart from its vast range of utilitarian purposes, bamboo also produces bamboo shoots, a uniquely Chinese ingredient seldom seen in other cuisines.

Yes, Korean and Japanese cooking make use of bamboo shoots, but no one prepares them like the Chinese chef.

When the spring thunderstorms come, the bamboo forests wake. As the rain soaks into the earth, dormant squat shoots that have lain underground all winter start swelling and poking their tips through the ground.

Even before their tender tops can pierce through the surface, they are quickly spotted and harvested. These fat "winter shoots" are boiled to get rid of the white alkali residue in the center and stripped of their inedible outer leaves.

Lightly salted water will help them keep longer, and they are canned or bottled - ending up in homes and restaurants as the thin, cream-colored slices we all know.

Bamboo shoots must be processed as soon as they are harvested, or they will quickly deteriorate once out of the ground. In southwest China, the mountains of the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region produce slender bamboo shoots that are harvested when they are only about 10 centimeters long.

They are dug out in the hills and sent by a pulley system down to the valley, where a busy production line strips them of leaves and pickles them immediately.

This is the famous suansun, the tangy pickled bamboo shoots that go into every bowl of noodles in that region.

Nearer the area of Suzhou, Jiangsu province, and Zhejiang province, equally tender shoots are pickled whole in sugar and salt for the famous "hand-stripped bamboo shoots", or shoubasun.

They are delicious eaten as a chilled snack or as an accompaniment to millet or bean porridge.

The Cantonese eat bamboo shoots all year round, from the fresh winter shoots to brined chunks to young fresh shoots cooked in a savory liqueur and served on a bed of shaved ice.

Bamboo shoots are finely diced and used in classic dumplings to add tactile crunch and sweetness. They are also widely used in Cantonese dim sum, playing a crucial background role.

My Cantonese grandmother's favorite bamboo dish was braised preserved bamboo with belly pork in a fermented red bean curd sauce.

The bamboo shoots were bought from Chinatown and resembled mummified pieces of an unknown object. It took days of repeated soaks to get rid of its strong ammonia scent. By the end of four days, maybe more, the bamboo shoots began to resemble their former selves.

These were dropped into boiling water for an hour and then drained for a final soak in cold water.

Fatty pork is seared in a wok to render the fat, and the bamboo shoot is added. Finally, a few pieces of fermented red bean curd are dissolved in Chinese wine and added to the braising pot.

This is when the alchemy happens. Bamboo shoots, fatty pork, wine and sauce cook down and emulsify into a mouth-watering mixture.

The pork melts away in the mouth, and the bamboo shoots retain their crunch but absorb all of the sweetness of the meat through a magical osmosis, and our whole family would polish off the entire platter in no time, aided by generous bowls of steamed white rice.

It is a time-consuming dish and takes a week from start to finish, but it is a dish that never tasted better.

Bamboo shoots are popular in Sichuan as well, where they are shredded and pickled in large jars topped with bright red chopped chili and chili oil. As a result, they are full of umami, and a little saucer will chase down a huge bowl of noodles, rice or porridge.

It takes an excellent chef to coax such flavors from the bland little bamboo shoot, but then the Chinese chef has always had talent for creating ambrosia out of the most ordinary ingredients.

Source:China Daily Author:Pauline D Loh Editor:Hiram