Bamboo Shoots: Harvesting, Preparing, and Pickling Wild Bamboo

 

Wild bamboo shoots ready to be pickled

My friends won’t be surprised by this disclosure: I was born with the Gibbons Gene. The gene was first discovered among children raised in 60s and 70s and manifests in Euell Gibbons Syndrome. My case is moderately severe. The urge to pick leaves, berries, and weeds never lets up, so when I’m walking in nature I’m sampling everything. This time of year I take my walks with two grocery bags—one to cover my hand, the other to hold tender new sprigs of stinging nettles if I find them. Throughout summer I sample wild cherries and crabapples and rose hips on a constant quest for amazing ingredients.

This drives Skip crazy because my enthusiasm compels me to thrust things at him with the assurance “You’ll love this.” He hardly ever does. And even if he does, he holds back, reminding me, “Someone’s going to have to drive you to the emergency room.” In the car it’s the same. Scanning, scanning, scanning—rubber-necking left and right. Inspecting elderberry bushes (flowers and berries). Noting auspicious black walnut trees (easy-reach branches). Tracking favored blackberry patches (estimating harvest times).

Now cane thickets are on my roster of swervable distractions. Cane is actually bamboo and it grows prolifically where I live. A couple of years ago we were strolling past a favorite bamboo patch, the one where we harvest garden stakes and trellis reeds, and happened to glance down. “Look at these shoots!,” I exclaimed to Skip as I stepped off the sidewalk and plucked one from the ground. “I wonder if they’re good?” Back at home I sliced one open. The creamy yellow core smelled grassy and had a delightful crunch. “Oh wow! This is amazing! Here. Taste it.”

Finding Wild Bamboo Shoots

Once bamboo is on your radar you’ll be amazed by how much there is. All three native North American species grow prolifically around Asheville, along with dozens of non-native invasives. It didn’t take long for me to chart promising patches. Around here, late April though early June is the time to harvesting bamboo shoots. Look for the pointy spears thrusting up from edges of bamboo thickets. Some species also send up shoots mid grove, so look there too. When you find a shoot all you have to do is pluck it out of the ground, most times they pop right out with a sideways tug.

Fresh, Raw Bamboo Shoots

The scent of just cut bamboo shoots registers between cucumbers and newly mown grass. Fantastically fresh! It’s OK to taste a little raw bamboo, but some (not all) bamboo gets a bitterness from hydrocyanic acid, a toxin that’s removed once the shoots have been blanched. Don’t freak! Hydrocyanic acid is present in lots of things we love—almonds, lima beans, and sweet potatoes, just to name a few. Blanching neutralizes and removes it from bamboo.


Peeling and trimming wild bamboo shoots for pickled bamboo shoots

[L]  Peeling bamboo the hard way  [C]  Splitting shoots makes them easy to peel  [R]  Split, peeled, and ready to go

Preparing and Blanching Bamboo Shoots

Be ready to blanch shoots soon after you’ve peeled and sliced them because exposure to air quickly hardens their tender flesh. Use freshly blanched bamboo shoots the same way you’d use canned ones—in salads, stir fries, noodle soups, or with a dip. Or PICKLE them!

METHOD

PEEL THE SHOOTS by halving them lengthwise. Using a paring knife, get between the outer leaves and the center core and pry apart the two layers. The core pops out easily. That’s your bamboo shoot.

CUT THE SHOOTS anyway you like, leaving them in halves, cut into quarters or slivers, or chopped into chunks. If not blanching them immediately, keep the raw shoots submerged in water so they don’t dry out.

BLANCH THE SHOOTS by covering them with cold water and adding some salt—guesstimate about ½ teaspoon per cup of water. Bring the water to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer the shoots for about 5 minutes. Taste them for doneness. You want to remove the raw or bitter flavor while retaining a firm and crunchy texture. If the shoots haven’t lost most of their bitterness after 5 minutes, change the water before you continue simmering. The type of bamboo and the thickness of the shoots will determine how long it takes. Mine were ready after about 10 minutes. Drain the shoots and rinse them under cold water.

STORE THE SHOOTS in salted water for 4 or 5 days in the refrigerator, or freeze them in some of the brine.


pickled bamboo shoots in a jar

Quick and Easy Bamboo Shoot Pickles

If you’ve scanned my other posts, it’ll be no surprise that I pickled my bamboo shoot harvest. I find the flavor and texture absolutely unique. Using packaged Asian-style seasoned rice vinegar makes this the simplest pickling recipe ever, or make your own seasoned vinegar from the recipe that follows this one. Since these pickles will keep nicely in the fridge for a couple of months, there’s no need to get out the canning tackle, unless, perhaps, you have a huge harvest. I made a two-jar batch this year that’s already gone. I still have a little more time to make more!

INGREDIENTS
  1. Blanched bamboo shoots
  2. 1 part seasoned rice vinegar, such as Kikkoman (or use recipe below)
  3. 1 part water
  4. Slices of fresh garlic, to taste
  5. Freshly ground black or white peppercorns, to taste
  6. Hot chili pepper or red pepper flakes, optional
METHOD
  • To estimate the amount of pickling solution you’ll need, pack blanched bamboo shoots into your pickle jar (or jars). Cover the shoots with water then pour the water into a measuring cup. That’s how much you’ll need, plus a wee bit more to make up for evaporation.
  • Place the bamboo shoots in a non reactive saucepan and cover with the vinegar-water mixture. If the liquid doesn’t cover the shoots, add more vinegar and water. Add the garlic, pepper, and chili, if using.
  • Bring the mixture to a boil then turn down the heat and simmer the shoots for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on their size.
  • Transfer the shoots to a jar (or jars) and ladle the pickling solution to cover the pickles.
  • They’re ready to eat immediately, or they’ll keep in the fridge for a couple of months.
Simmering wild bamboo shoots in pickling solution and packing bamboo shoots into into pickle jar
Simmer blanched shoots in a simple pickling solution   |   Pack the shoots into jars and cover with pickling solution

DIY Seasoned Rice Vinegar

Kikkoman and Marukan are the top brands of this sweet-sour-salty condiment that’s used for sushi-making and in Thai-style salad dressings. There’s nothing to making it yourself—just three ingredients stirred or shaken together. Rice vinegar is traditional but any vinegar will work.

INGREDIENTS and METHOD
  • 1 cup vinegar
  • ½ cup sugar (sounds like a lot but condiments are supposed to be concentrated)
  • 1 heaping teaspoon salt

Combine all of the ingredients and stir, or shake, until the sugar is dissolved.

Close up of a pickled bamboo shoot
 Bamboo shoot pickles are cool looking and their tangy crunch will tempt you to hide the jar for yourself.

 

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Chris Bryant

9 Comments

  1. Hi, I’ve enjoyed reading your article on bamboo shoot. A long time ago I have a wonderful friend who used to make sliced pork with bamboo shoot and its vinegary water. She has passed away now and I’m trying to find a recipe on how to make this bamboo vinegar. I think she just sliced the already blanched bamboo shoots in water and let it sit for a month or so. But I am not sure if she put anything else in the water like sugar or salt. Have you tried to make bamboo vinegar? I also want to try to make coconut water vinegar. Thank you very much for reading for sharing your recipes. Much bless, lili

    • Lili, thanks for sharing the lovely memory of your friend’s recipe. I love the idea of bamboo vinegar but I’ve never seen it in the markets. I do know you can ferment/pickle fresh bamboo shoots in a salt-water brine as with lacto-fermented cucumbers. And you can purchase fermented bamboo shoots in a good Asian market. Maybe some of that brine, mixed with a little rice vinegar or black vinegar, would do the trick? I’m glad to hear from a fellow vinegar lover! I imagine you have quite a collection like I do 😉

      • Thank you for your reply Chris. Happy fermenting! Right now I have pineapple peels vinegar , kombucha and water kefir going in my kitchen. Smells wonderful! 🙂

  2. Living in Durham, England I don’t have access to bamboo but still I enjoy my form of bamboo shoots for stir frys and oriental soup. I buy small turnips, peel then cut sections through about 1.5″ and thinly slice, just as you would find them in tins. Until now I’ve just blanched them and used them fresh, but I think they would be better in your pickle vinegar.
    I really got a lot inspiration from your recipe, thank you x

    • Thanks Denys! Yes, pickled turnip would be excellent. Same goes for sturdy Daikon radish, kholrabi, and even carrots, all perfectly suited for this pickling formula. No need for blanching either. Put your veggies directly into the boiling solution, give it a couple of stirs, and turn off the heat. Let the pickles cool down in the liquid for 10–20 minutes, then transfer to a jar and pop into the fridge to chill.

      This is how I’m doing carrots coming from local farmer’s market right now. I’m loving big Asian flavor this summer so I add a heaping spoonfull of turmeric to the pickle solution then pack the jar with fresh cilantro, basil, and mint. Friends are loving them!

  3. I enjoyed this article very much. I’m trying to make menma (fermented bamboo) as a topping for homemade ramen. The asian grocery stores near me sell large whole shoots (cooked), as well as canned bamboo. The problem is they always taste and smell like chemicals. I’ve heard if you boil it for a few minutes that may go away. I haven’t tried that yet. The bamboo shoots that they sell are the wider ones. I’m assuming they are from more mature bamboo trees. I may try buying some of those. It’s frustrating because menma is suppose to be fermented bamboo shoots. Most of the menma recipes are just canned or fresh bamboo with seasonings. I like the idea of pickling with just salt and spring water (spices, garlic etc.) so that you get all the added benefits of all that good bacteria and that great sour taste. I know bamboo grows quickly. I wonder how long it would take to get some good shoots? Also, what was the length on the ones you cut? One foot? I appreciate all the great information. It’s tough finding information on this.

    • Craig. Great questions. It may be too late to get your hands on fresh local bamboo to ferment this year, but fresh stalks might be available from large Asian markets, especially in larger cities. And you’re right, those striped clean, white-to-yellow stalks in markets are already cooked and usually stored in a brine of salt and/or citric acid. So they’ve essentially been denatured, in the pickling sense. Same goes for the plastic-wrapped shelf stable or frozen shoots. Likely there’s been some blanching or par boiling to stabilize them. Canned ones are cooked beyond the pale, so they don’t count.

      There might be a way to impart some authentic fermented funkiness to those so called “fresh” market varieties. Have you ever fermented your own cucumber pickles or made kimchee? It’s super simple. (Search “chris bryant fermented pickles” to find a post from my past life at Lark Books on barrel brining). If you’re game for a little experimentation, you could start a batch of cucumber pickles, adding the flavorings you would add to menma, and once the fermentation is clearly underway (usually 3–4 days in warm weather) add strips of the freshest bamboo shoots you can source (except canned). Be sure to rinse them well and add a couple of extra big shakes salt to the pickles. Then see what happens. (So, at this point I must add this disclaimer, that I have not tried anything like this and cannot guarantee the results will be palatable or even safe.) But, that said, it might work to impart some authentic fermented menma flavor to the shoots.

      Regarding the wider shoots you see in markets, bamboo plants come in a range of sizes. Some of the Chinese and Asian varieties grow massive trunks a foot or more wide! Their shoots are fat and stubby. Others will be long and skinny. The ones I gather locally are 5 to 10 inches. Bamboo does grow quickly but also rampantly. It will take over your yard and your neighbor’s yard! Search “growing bamboo” and you’ll discover alarming cautionary tales. On top of that, not all varieties send up shoots and those that do aren’t reliable from year to year. So best to scope out a patch this summer and start watching it late February to early April. (that is, depending on where you live.)

  4. Just found you when I googled “wild bamboo shoots” and your perfect instructions popped up! My son just took me to a grove he found – we were looking for stakes for the pickling cucumbers I just planted – and I could not resist taking a shoot. Now I know what to do with it! I pickle everything, and make kimchi, too, with just about anything.

    • Discovering a grove of bamboo is exciting. I hope you were able to pickle some stalks this year. My ole reliable patch for many years was cleared for new houses in our neighborhood and we were in Italy when I was supposed to be staking out a new one. But as they say, there’s always next year… well, until recently.

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