Seriously Asian: Bamboo Stalks

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I can think of few vegetables that are readily turned into building materials, various tools, and even textiles and musical instruments, save for bamboo. Wherever bamboo is indigenous in Asia and beyond, the grass is used for everything from building houses to feeding people, which, if you stop to think about, is rather amazing. You could be eating delicate young shoots of bamboo dressed in chili oil, served in a bamboo bowl with bamboo chopsticks, while sitting in your bamboo hut.

Bamboo is as prevalent in most Asian culinary traditions as it is versatile in the kitchen. It's steamed, stir-fried, simmered in soups and curries, pickled, and even fermented. In the spring you can buy from your Asian grocer fresh raw bamboo shoots, which must be parboiled or steamed to counter its bitterness and slight toxicity. Canned shoots are widely available in both Western and Asian markets. Even the timber of the giant bamboo, when it is sliced thinly and parboiled, may be eaten.

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Inside the bamboo stalks.

Slender young bamboo stalks are different from the fresh or canned shoots that we see more frequently in the states. Delicate in taste and light green or pale, the stalks are a treat if you can find them. The stalks are usually sold pre-cooked and salted, so that you need only soak them in warm water before use. Rarely fresh, the stalks of bamboo are sold in packages at your Chinese and Korean supermarkets.

If you've never tried tender bamboo stalks, imagine the flavor of bamboo shoots, either fresh or canned, only with more intensity. Though it's usually unhelpful to use vague terms such as "spring," "summer-y," or "autumnal" to describe the flavor of food, bamboo stalks really do taste like spring to me. Even when they're not freshly harvested, they're delicate and light in flavor. The outer layer of the stalk is meaty and dense; inside, the chambered pith, almost translucent in its thinness, is extremely tender.