For years, my husband and I have watched with trepidation as a forest of bamboo has relentlessly advanced on our property. Every summer, he would spend days chopping away at stalks and roots; every year more would pop up. It was an endless game of whack-a-mole, and we were losing. When the county announced that it would embark on a stormwater project along the stream behind our property we, along with our next-door neighbors, asked that the project please, please, please include eradication of the bamboo.
That would still leave plenty of bamboo in our suburban Maryland neighborhood. Too many of our subdivision’s original homeowners had thought the plant would provide a pleasant screen from prying eyes. Instead, it encircled and strangled native species like a boa constrictor. It uprooted the tennis courts adjacent to the neighborhood pool. It cast darkness over sunny areas. Everywhere we looked, we could see nuisance and menace.
Meanwhile, the stream restoration and containment pond project was proceeding on county time, which, on the scale of eternity might not be as slow as say, island time, but is pretty close. It was spring again last year, and the untouched bamboo was on the march when the neighbors on the other side of us, whose yard had not yet been invaded, came over with an unusual request. Could they harvest some bamboo shoots? To eat.
I hadn’t really connected those crunchy tan strips in Chinese cooking with this beautiful-yet-destructive plant. Nor had I imagined that anyone other than a panda would consider them a delicacy. Not only could my neighbors harvest some bamboo shoots, I wanted them to teach me how to do it, too. We might as well benefit from the bane of our back yard.
A brief history of bamboo. The plant was used in neolithic China to construct shelter and rafts, and to make baskets. It was used later for large projects such as dams, as well as weapons, chopsticks, paper, firewood, hats and shoes. And, of course, people ate it. It was so important to Chinese existence that its form and characteristics became beloved in word and art. Its deep roots suggested resoluteness; its straight growth, honesty; its white interior, purity. It was known as one of the gentlemen among plants. Artists spent their whole lives painting bamboo; there were even rules for in which order to render its four parts.
This was the plant we loved to hate?
Of course, here in the United States, bamboo introduced from Asia has become a pest. It’s almost impossible to eradicate, can move 30 feet a year, and squeezes out native plants by overrunning their territory and blocking their sun.
Eager to see why it had such appeal, my husband and I joined our neighbors, Irene Xie and Benson Suen; Irene’s mom, Su Teng, who was visiting from Beijing; and their two young daughters, Alison and Alicia, to hunt, harvest and cook some bamboo. Irene, her mom and Benson’s mom, Sau Lan Cheung, who lives nearby, had already made forays into our yard and had pronounced our bamboo not very good, but we started our search there, anyway. Our guides pointed out the brown, vaguely rocket-shaped shoots; we were looking for ones more than a foot tall and an inch in diameter. “We only eat the tops,” Benson said. Our shoots were mostly gone; the season around here runs roughly from late March through early June. But when we moved into our neighbors’ yard, we found lots, popping up in the middle of their grass like skinny little aliens. Irene and her mom weren’t sure they would be any tastier than ours had been. The other side of the stream, they said, had a better crop.
The seven of us trudged through the tall grass on the berm that bridges the stream and connects one side of the neighborhood to the other. Short shoots that Benson had rejected scant days before as too small now towered over our heads. We pushed up the hill to find some that were just right. These were more dappled than the ones in our yard, which were closer to solid brown; perhaps, I thought, because they were getting more sun. They certainly looked more attractive, so I wasn’t surprised that they had been deemed to taste better, too.
Though we were doing this for fun, Benson regaled us with tales of people who had collected enough bamboo shoots over the season to make a couple hundred dollars selling to nearby Chinese grocery stores, where fresh bamboo shoots go for about $3 a pound. Neil Yang, manager at the Great Wall Supermarket in Rockville, confirmed that locals come in to sell shoots in the spring, though supply is limited and sporadic: “We had it yesterday, but we don’t have some today.” The local shoots are popular because of their short season and because they’re tender and juicy, he said. “It tastes very, very good.”
We filled two reusable grocery sacks, breaking off the growth at the root, so that it made a pleasing crack (Irene’s mom, who speaks no English, pantomimed the proper technique and had me practice several times until I got the hang of doing it in one clean snap). Then we trudged back over the berm, Benson and Irene carrying the kids piggyback, because they didn’t like walking through the tall grass and weeds, as I pondered whether this adventure was worth risking Lyme disease.
In front of the house, we pulled off the outer brown leaves of the shoots to reveal the green ones, chopped off the woody ends, then split the shoots lengthwise, pulling out the tender inner growth. We wound up with light green, skinny, triangular pieces, regularly bisected with white nodes. This was a labor-intensive process, and we hadn’t even gotten to the cooking (which reminded me of a question I had seen raised in a documentary: Why is Chinese food so cheap? “Competition,” Benson said.)
But back to the bamboo. When Irene decided we had enough to cook, we moved to the kitchen. There she threw the shoots into a bowl of cold water, then began slicing them into strips lengthwise, first cutting off any ends that still felt tough (like one does with asparagus). “Don’t tell my mother,” she said, sweeping the evidence into the trash can. Since the shoots hadn’t cost anything, she felt free to take only the best parts. It’s seldom that one has a free meal made out of an invasive species, so it seemed like a win all the way around.
The cut-up shoots were not the shape I was used to; they resembled miniature half ladders rather than sticks of chewing gum. Turns out, the canned bamboo shoots often come from the outside of the shoot, not the super-tender inside.
Though most of the material I had read about bamboo shoots insisted they had to be boiled to get rid of the sour taste, Irene stir-fried hers, saying boiling was not necessary because they were so fresh. To oil, she added extremely salty sliced Jinhua ham (muttering that she had forgotten to get Chinese bacon — pork belly), then scallions, then the shoots and finally slices of dried tofu. She flavored it all with oyster sauce, salt and sugar, and her favorite soy sauce: Lee Kum Kee Seasoned Soy Sauce for Seafood.
The result was light and delicious. The bamboo shoots were tender and crunchy and tasted mild — a little like hearts of palm. I could see why people crave them.
But that didn’t change my mind about the bamboo jungle encroaching on my yard. It’s gotta go.
Elizabeth Chang is an articles editor in the Magazine.
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