Surely there is no vegetable more redolent of springtime in Japan than takenoko bamboo shoots. Their very appearance in the markets, or out in the bamboo groves themselves where their pointed, brown tips grow skyward at an incredible rate, puts a, pardon the pun, spring in everyone's step. Winter is surely behind us and the glorious tastes of the new season await. Think of them not just as humble veggies, but harbingers of feasting pleasures to come.
Plucked fresh from the mountain takenoko come cloaked in a layer of thick, brown husks. Once these are removed, the edible shoot is roughly half the original size. Don't be disappointed if you shell out quite a lot of money on the very finest fresh specimens, only later to realize the part you can consume is rather small!
Bamboo shoots contain a bitter toxin, taxiphyllin, the same as found in cassava root, and thus need to be boiled, for several minutes, before eating. The classic method is to do that with the milky water left over from washing rice grains.
Tsukahara bamboo shoots on sale at Kanematsu in Kyoto's Nishikikoji market
Bamboo shoots are versatile, and can be used in any number of ways. Unlike in the rest of Asia where stir-frying is the norm, Japanese chefs most frequently uses takenoko in aemono dressed dishes, soups, as dengaku with miso paste, steamed slowly in rice often with chicken, or as tempura. Household favorites are wakatakeni, in which the young shoots are simmered in dashi stock with wakame seaweed, and takenokogohan, where the shoots are finely chopped and steamed with plain, white rice, or wholegrain genmai if you prefer.
The best bamboo shoots have a delicate taste, slightly earthy but essentially mild. They are excellent in absorbing the juices or sauces with which they are cooked and served. Their sharp, crunchy texture is also part of the attraction, which means buying the freshest possible is always best. Canned or pre-packed takenoko will suffice, but for the best possible taste experience, fresh is, as ever, best. Bamboo shoots and kinome, the young leaves of the Japanese Pepper tree, are a match made in heaven.
Takenoko have been consumed in Japan since ancient times. In 21st Century markets, you'll see them written as 竹の子literally 'child of the bamboo', but this is of modern origin. Unusually, there are in fact two single kanji characters for takenoko, 筍 and笋, though the latter is rarely seen. Scribble it on your shopping list and see how the staff respond!
Kyoto has long been famed for the quality of its bamboo shoots, undoubtedly through the vegetable's use in shojin ryori vegetarian Zen cuisine. Staff at exclusive vegetable purveyor Kanematsu, in Kyoto's Nishikikoji Market, speak highly of the Tsukahara variety grown in the west of the city. These takenoko are much prized, and top the nation's 'bamboo shoot ranking', no less.
Nagaokakyo city's bamboo groves are also famous, not only for the tastiness of the shoots, but also as Thomas Edison visited whilst studying bamboo as a possible material for the filament. In Tokyo, the Meguro district has been renowned for the vegetable since the early Meiji period.
When to eat
In early spring, as the cherry blossoms near their end and the weeks that follow. This year the shoots, like the sakura blooms, are late due to the cold snap towards the end of March. Mid-April to the end of May is the 'season', though the vegetables can be found year round.
Where to eat
Kinsuitei is a justly famous takenoko kaiseki formal cuisine specialist in Nagaokakyo city, a short train ride west of Kyoto. It has been working its bamboo magic since 1881. In Tokyo, Itoya in Aoyama 2-chomeis a Kyoto Tsukahara bamboo shoot specialist. Tofutei in Meguro Gajoen serves takenoko-based courses during the season.
If you want to try the taste but without the expense, izakaya often feature takenoko, as do tempura restaurants. The street stalls at festivals and at shrines during cherry blossom season also feature grilled bamboo shoots.
Wakatakeni young bamboo shoots simmered in dashi with wakame seaweed. A classic taste combination. Very healthy and vegetarian too.