I’ll be the first to admit that, while I try to be more conscious of where my food comes from and what’s in it, moving to rural Japan as been an exercise in 「なるほど。。。」. My family has been off the farm for a few generations, and I grew up in the suburbs. My suburban upbringing has never been more apparent than it has been here—you know those pins that people had in the late 90s/early 00s that said “In the suburbs, we cut down the trees and name the streets after them”? Before I came here, I don’t think I had ever seen a wisteria in bloom, an azalea, or plum blossoms. Of course there are Japanese varieties of trees that I haven’t seen because they aren’t native to the US, but I’ve spent almost the whole month of May thinking, “So THAT’s what a wisteria looks like!”
This is the same of food. I had no idea that edamame grew on branches; I had no idea that chestnuts are dead set on preventing you from eating them. As for bamboo, the topic of today’s edition of The Gaijin Chef, well, that was a total mystery. Late April to May is bamboo shoot (take no ko タケノコ 竹の子) season, and a fellow Specialist invited me and some of our friends to come gather bamboo shoots with her international friendship group. Like all forests, bamboo forests cannot thrive with too many trees, and so harvesting the shoots serves the dual purpose of obtaining food and promoting a healthy forest.
One does not eat full-grown bamboo trees. If the variety of bamboo is edible at all, it’s the young shoot that is edible. The most delicious take no ko is the small, barely visible shoot with soft green leaves. On the forest floor, they’re rather hard to see, so this gathering is, in a way, also hunting.
The best part is still buried under the ground, so first, you dig around the small shoot and expose more of the plant. Next, using a hoe (kuwa 鍬), you chop at an angle toward the bend of the shoot to snap the root off cleanly.
If you buy prepared bamboo shoots in the store, they look like this.
THIS is what I came home with.
The whole experience of hacking the shoot out of the ground was delightfully primitive. I don’t mean that Japanese food or the Japanese are primitive and that I was “going native” or something by participating in this harvest; and I also don’t mean that the Japanese are more in touch with nature than Americans are. I mean that the extent of my producing food has been exclusively limited to growing herbs in pots on my balcony, and that I’ve never used a farm tool in my life. It felt good to take home the fruits (or the shoots, heh) of my labor to cook.
The international society served us delicious dishes of take no ko. Bamboo is an incredibly healthy food. It has practically no calories, a good percentage of your recommended daily fiber and protein, and lots of vitamins.
How to cook with bamboo depends on the freshness of the shoot.* I wasn’t entirely sure if I should use nuka, rice bran (ぬか 糠) used to cut the bitterness of slightly older bamboo, or not, so I went questing for it and some ingredients to make vegetable tofu nimono with the bamboo.
And that’s when, in typical Gaijin-Chef fashion, things took a nose dive.
Of course, at the time, everything seemed to be going just fine. At the store, the two very friendly clerks who helped me look for a smaller container of nuka told me that if I had received a take no ko from that morning or the day before, no nuka was necessary. So I trotted home to make this amazing-looking recipe that a friend had recommended.
I should note a few things here. First, said friend is very good at and very knowledgeable about Japanese cooking. Second, I do not like video recipes. Because I have to check paper recipes roughly 500 times a minute to make sure I’m not screwing up, having to “rewind” a video while cooking is just way too much for me to handle. Third, I had copied the English-only list of ingredients. So, I go home, hack apart my bamboo, and boil it. Thirty minutes later, it’s perfectly done. I cut it in thirds, store the other two-thirds in water in the fridge, and get to making my nimono.
Because I hadn’t watched the video before shopping (and you, the reader, really need to for any of this to make sense) and had just copied down the list of English ingredients, I discover that I have the wrong kind of konbu. I have firm tofu 木綿豆腐 instead of fried tofu 油揚げ, but I have extra fried bits from a prior recipe, so I just used both. I forgot to buy gobou (burdock root). I have regular potatoes instead of the kind in the video. I am tired, hungry, and trying to financially recuperate from my Golden Week stop through Kyoto and Takarazuka, both forever the bane of my wallet. I am not going back to the store. Tofu nimono, like most “throw stuff in a dashi/sake/sugar broth and cook it” meals, can be whatever I want, dammit! I decide to roll with it.
This recipe has, not including the liquid parts, ten ingredients in it. All of them have to be prepped before cooking. Peel and cut the carrot. Okay, no problem. Peel and cut the lotus root—and place it in water mixed with vinegar. Sure. Peel and cut the potatoes and rub with salt. Well, I have the wrong kind of potatoes, but I’ll do it anyway.
I have to keep washing my hands between ingredients so I can replay the video.
Pound the konnyaku and cut it up. Oookay. Flash-boil the snap peas. FINE. Rehydrate the shiitake mushrooms.
Son of a bitch.
Why didn’t you TELL me that from the get-go, Cooking with Dog? If I had done that first, the mushrooms would be ready! The stems aren’t getting soft! I’m going to starve to death before I get to eat my bamboo!
I am approaching a Julie/Julia Project-style culinarily induced meltdown when I notice that my shiitake? Fresh. They don’t need to be rehydrated, just washed and dried and cut just before cooking.
It’s a good thing no one speaks English in my apartment building, because at this point, I have reached the final stage of Allie Brosh’s Sneaky Hate Spiral.
No, screw you, bilingual dog, I’m not straining my mushroom water into the pot. I can’t find the strainer.**
It’s carrots, not kehROHTS!***
I think my eye is starting to twitch.
I finally get all the prep work done, but the cooking method is equally aggravating. I feel like I will never get all the ingredients added or at the right temperature. I eat some leftovers for dinner while this never-ending parade of instructions continues. The recommended amount of water doesn’t cover my ingredients, so I add more water and more dashi concentrate to compensate. The water in the video covers the ingredients, so mine will, too!
I get to the part where you check the pot after 20 minutes. Finally, I’m done with this horribly complicated recipe! But the liquid hasn’t reduced. At all. I pour some out and cook it a little longer, then pour most of it out.
Then I go collapse on the tatami until I have to leave for dance practice. Total time spent shopping, prepping, and cooking: 3 hours. Video recipe: 1; me: 0.
Fortunately, the end result was delicious–and made enough to feed an army. I am very pleased with the flavor, but I fear for the long-term effects on my mental health. I like fresh ingredients. I don’t mind peeling, slicing, soaking things to make a good homemade meal. I do, apparently, mind prepping ten individual ingredients before I even get to start cooking. Where’s Ban when I need him?
The next recipes I tried were much easier. Take no ko gohan—bamboo rice—requires me to just throw things in a rice cooker and turn it on, although, helpful hint? Three cups of brown rice is like 6-8 meals’ worth of rice for me. I am cooking for one, and when I do actually eat rice, I eat it only once a day. (Much to the bafflement of my coworkers.) Clearly, I had been driven insane by the first recipe so that I didn’t even think about reducing the amount of rice till it was too late.
At least the bamboo stir-fry only required me to throw things in a frying pan with chili oil and only made three servings.
These recipes, plus the mini-lasagna I made to stave off becoming a panda, feed me for two weeks straight. No joke.
Would I boil my own bamboo shoots again? In a heartbeat! Will I make that tofu nimono recipe again? Only if I write it down correctly first and bribe my friends to be sous chefs for a day.
But that might just be because I want to say, “Oi, Bambi!”
*How to prepare bamboo shoots
Very fresh take no ko
If you have dug up or received a take no ko within 1-2 days of harvesting, bitterness shouldn’t be a problem. Make a diagonal cut near the tip and a vertical cut from top to bottom. Open the layers and remove all of the husk. Cut of the very bottom part; wash. Cut off the outer parts and the purple parts. Boil in water for 30-45 minutes until skewer-soft. (Softer but still crisp.)
Cut into pieces and use immediately or store in a contained filled with cold, clean water in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Change the water every day.
Fresh take no ko
Take no ko bought at the store (in the product section) is fresh but might be bitter since it has aged in transit from the forest to the store. Use nuka, rice bran, (ぬか 糠), available in the pickling/vegetable preparation section of the grocery store, to cut the bitterness or the water that was used to wash rice to cut the bitterness and speed up the softening.
Make a diagonal cut near the tip and a vertical cut from top to bottom. Remove some of the husk, but leave a layer on. Boil in a pot with a cup of nuka for 90 minutes to soften the shoot and remove the bitterness. Remove the rest of the husk, cut off purple parts and the outer layer. Use immediately or store in a container filled with cold, clean water in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Change the water every day.
Vacuum-sealed take no ko
竹の子水煮 (take no ko mizu ni)
Might not be as flavorful as home-boiled take no ko, but it’s already cooked. Rinse off any remaining grit (from the nuka in which it was prepared) before using in a recipe.
**It is, of course, buried in the bottom of the laundry baskets in which I, lacking actual reachable shelves in the kitchen, store my pans underneath the sink. But let’s not talk about the pathetic state of my Japanese kitchen, okay?
*** Be nice to your foreign acquaintances. I know I sound like a moron in Japanese when I pronounce things funny, but remember, at this point I’m at the stage where I’m about to go scream at the birds roosting above my door for mocking me with their powers of flight, so EVERYTHING is getting on my nerves.