Twenty years ago if you knew little else about Chinese food, you knew about bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and maybe bean sprouts. Along with fried chow mein noodles, which would have puzzled anyone on the Chinese mainland, and little bottles of liquid that weren't quite soy sauce, they were about the first products offered when American supermarkets set aside shelf space for exotic foods.
Bamboo shoots only came sliced in tuna fish-sized cans, as did water chestnuts, and soggy bean sprouts could be found in soggy chow mein concoctions. Today fresh bean sprouts may be found almost anywhere and coconut-sweet fresh water chestnuts are a fixture at Asian markets, but bamboo shoots, with rare exceptions, still come in cans. This isn't, however, necessarily bad.
In Asia, fresh bamboo shoots are available in the spring when the bamboo plant sends them forth, and there are some highly prized winter varieties. If husked and cooked immediately after they're cut, bamboo shoots have a savory sweetness to go with their characteristically refreshing crunchiness. But because they rapidly develop an acrid and bitter flavor after being picked, they usually must be boiled for about 1 1/2 hours -- traditionally in the husk in rice-rinsing liquid -- before they can be used for cooking. By this time they aren't dramatically better than the canned variety.
The fresh bamboo shoots that have shown up in Chinese markets on the East and West Coasts have been as terrible as they are expensive; they don't travel well. And edible varieties of bamboo, many of them tropical or subtropical, to my knowledge have not been raised successfully on these shores.
Some very fine canned bamboo shoots are available. Perhaps the best is Ma Ling, packaged in China in 16-ounce cans. Among winter bamboo shoots -- twice the price of the regular varieties -- Companion Brand is very good, and so is Companion's Giant Bamboo Shoots. An unusual variety are the "slender" bamboo shoots packaged in a beautifully labeled 28-ounce can from Kiangsi, China. They're shaped like asparagus and the two go well together in a simple stir-fried dish with any kind of light sauce or simple seasonings.
Before using, canned bamboo shoots should be boiled for a minute to rid them of any tinny taste, then run under cold water. Extra pieces may be stored for up to two weeks in the refrigerator in a water-filled container if the water is changed every two days.
PORK WITH BAMBOO SHOOTS AND CHILI PEPPERS (2 servings)
Bamboo shoots used not just in China, but in Japan, Korea and throughout Southeast Asia, are considered a "cooling" food and as such they complement "warming" foods such as rich meats or chili peppers.
1/2 pound pork loin
2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon dry sherry
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons peanut oil
3/4 cup finely shredded bamboo shoots
1 cup (packed) red and/or green fresh chili pepper shreds (bell pepper shreds may be substituted for any or all of the hot pepper shreds)
Slice the pork loin as thinly as possible and then stack the slices and cut into the thinest possible shreds. (You should have about a cup of match-stick-shaped pieces.) Blend the pork with the dark soy sauce, cornstarch and sesame oil and set aside.
Blend the sherry, salt and sugar and set aside. Heat the oil in a wok or skillet and add the pork. Cook, stirring to separate the shreds, over high heat for 1 1/2 minutes. Add the bamboo shoots and continue to cook for 30 seconds. Add the seasoned sherry and the chili peppers and cook, stirring for another minute. Serve.