After such a long hard winter I want spring to burst on the scene like gangbusters or at least Auntie Marne. I want to know it's here! I want to feel the sun and hear the birds and see the blossoms and new green.
That is the way it usually comes here, gloriously, but if seasons can have personalities, Niigata's Spring of '74 is a timid little thing. One or two days of half-hearted sunshine and then she runs away and a spell of chilly rain returns.
Even the trees can't seem to make up their minds whether to flower or not. About 20 minutes from our house by car is Suibara and the lake where the Siberian swans come to winter. By this time of year it is always about empty. But I rode over yesterday and lo and behold, if there aren't still a few confused swans swimming around.
The fields up near the river road are alive with activity again with the farmers preparing their land for planting but I suspect it is only because of the month, not the weather. Some days they work under the off-again, on-again sun but mostly this April found them working in their black slickers trying to ignore the rain.
This past winter brought excess snows and now there is excess melting combined with the rains and the Agano River is high and the farmers look nervous as it takes a lick over its bank occasionally.
Good heavens, it's almost May and I can recall other years when the tulips streaked color along the river road and the cuckoo carried on high on the pines here in Somi by now. A late spring is a disappointment and I turned from the orchard during my morning walk and went over to the bamboo grove, always reliable, beautiful in any weather.
Never having lived in any other country where bamboo grew as it does here, it is like a symbol of Japan to me. Sure, I've seen orchards of cherry blossoms in the US but no one made such a fuss over them. Here it is the bamboo that seems utterly unique to me.
When I first came to Somi, our old caretaker Abiko-san told me always to go to the bamboo grove in case of an earthquake because the bamboo gives safety. It also gives cool on a hot summer day and how I love things fashioned from bamboo. In the spring it also gives young shoots which make delightful eating.
The bamboo shoots are called "takenoko". "Take" means bamboo, "no" signifies possession and "ko" means child. When "takenoko" is written in its Chinese character, the top of the character means "bamboo" and the bottom means "10 days". When the shoots break the earth, they should be eaten for the best flavor before they are 10 days old.
Some kinds of bamboo are native to Japan but the kind that is commonly eaten is called "mosochiku" which was imported into Kyushu during the 16th century from China. Often when we buy bamboo shoots, which are now on the market, we are not lucky enough to find them as young as 10 days. Because of this an ash-like taste can develop but disappears when it is boiled in water.
When buying bamboo shoots, of course, you know enough to strip off the tight thick overlapping sheaths before cooking. Many people boil them in salted water or deep fry in hot peanut oil until crisp. They can also be served in soups, stews and in Japan cooked with rice to make bamboo-rice, "takenoko-gohan”.
Everyone has probably used canned bamboo in cooking especially when making Chinese food. A delicious vegetable and with only 27 calories to 100 grams, it has become popular in many countries since it was first canned in the city of Wakayama in Japan back in 1880. Yet there is something rather special about the taste of fresh bamboo and there is something very special about walking into a bamboo grove, like entering an oriental painting.
How To Make SAUTÉED BAMBOO SHOOTS
- 2 cups of bamboo shoots
- 1 chicken breast
- 3 tbsp. salad oil
- 1 tbsp. chopped onion
- ¼ cup chicken bouillon
- 1 tbsp. shoyu or more to taste
Cut bamboo shoots into slivers. Skin and bone chicken breast. Cut across the grain into thin slices. Heat salad oil in a skillet. When very hot, cook onion in it for one minute. Add chicken and cook for one minute. Add bamboo shoots, bouillon and shoyu. Simmer covered for about ten minutes or until flavors have blended. Makes 2 or 3 servings.
How To Make BAMBOO RICE
- 3½ cups of rice
- 200 gm. (about 7 oz.) of fresh bamboo shoots
- 2 tbsp. shoyu
- 1½ tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. mirin (sweet sake)
- 4 cups water
Wash rice thoroughly. Cut bamboo into small thin pieces and soak in salt water for 30 minutes or so. Put rice, bamboo, shoyu, salt, mirin and water into a kama or rice cooker and cook in the usual way. If you are new at it and cooking in a regular pot, set it on the stove, bring to a boil and keep on a very high flame until the rice begins to bubble over. * Reduce heat to low, cook for 20 minutes, turn off heat, allow to stand for 10 minutes and serve in individual bowls.
How To Make SHRIMPS SAUTÉED WITH BAMBOO SHOOTS
- 400 gm. (14 oz.) shrimps
- 3 slices ginger
- 2 bamboo shoots
- 2 tbsp. cornstarch
- 1 tsp. salt
- 2 tbsp. sake
- 1 long onion cut into ½ inch sections
- 3 tbsp. oil
Cut the ginger into ½ inch pieces and the bamboo shoots into ½ inch cubes. Shell and de-vein the shrimps and cut into ½ inch pieces. Mix with cornstarch, salt, sake, onion and ginger. Heat pan with the oil and when it is very hot add the shrimp mixture. Stir once, and then add the bamboo shoots and sauté together 4 minutes. Serve very hot on a shallow plate. Serves 4.