Chinese bamboo shoots (竹笋, zhú sǔn), also known as bamboo sprouts, are conical, creamy-coloured tender shoots cut from the bamboo plant when they’re about 15cm/6in long. They have a mild flavor and crunchy texture and are widely used throughout Asia to bulk out stir-fries, soups and other dishes.
Most people know bamboo as a food of the beloved Giant Panda. Bamboo is native to China and there are many varieties and regional adaptations. The hearts of young shoots of the giant timber bamboo are harvested in spring or early summer. They are highly sought after due to their crisp texture and sweet taste. Cultivated for consumption for almost 3,000 years, this plant is regarded culturally as a ‘treasure of dishes’ and has even been mentioned in ancient poetry. Furthermore, bamboo shoot is highly regarded in Chinese medicine for its cleansing properties. Naturally, they are also low fat, low sugar, and multi-fiber. But they are only edible after boiling (or cooked other ways), and best sliced.
Use of Bamboo Shoots in Chinese Cooking
Bamboo shoots will be found in dishes from pretty much every region of China. They are a real diet staple in the tropical south and southwestern regions where bamboo flourishes. Most dishes will use the youngest possible shoots which are the tenderest. Older shoots have an acrid flavor. They should be sliced thinly and boiled in a large volume of water several times.
If you purchased fresh bamboo shoots, you may need to pre-boil bamboo to remove the bitter taste. You can check for tenderness by pressing with a thumbnail to see if there is give in the flesh. After cutting into smaller pieces, boil fresh bamboo for 7 to 20 minutes (the less tender, the longer it needs) and then rinse in cool water.
Most of the canned and packaged bamboo shoots are pre-boiled. You can use them directly in the cooking.
Recipes using bamboo shoots
Bamboo shoots are great for adding texture to everyday meals, such as stir fries, soups, salads, and fillings. It’s a highly versatile ingredient can be added to pretty much anything you can think of!
- Chinese Chicken Mushroom Stir Fry – Meaning mushroom and sliced chicken, discover new textures in this stir-fry with the addition of bamboo shoots.
- Buddha’s Delight – A classic and festive vegetarian dish made easy. This vegetable stew is great tasting, very flexible and practical for home cooking on a daily basis, not to mention super healthy.
- Chicken Chow Mein – Make your favorite Chinese takeout without a wok and it will taste as great as the restaurant version.
- Vegetarian Hot and Sour Soup – Cook this richly scrumptious soup at home at a lower cost. Cooking tips are included so you can assemble your own soup with other ingredients really easily.
- Cantonese Chicken Egg Roll – The perfect combination of meat, savory dried foods, colorful veggies, and a well-balanced sauce releases the ultimate umami.
- Chinese Hot Pot – Introduce friends and family to the wonders of bamboo shoot at your next hot pot party, one of the most traditional social eating events for the Chinese.
Where to Buy
You can find bamboo shoots at your local Chinatown or Asian market. These days, many mainstream supermarkets have an international section where you can find them too, next to the canned and preserved vegetables.
NOTE: Be careful you don’t buy dried bamboo fungus, which although perfectly edible, is no adequate substitute for bamboo shoots. You can tell the difference from the appearance: the fungus looks more like a lacy coral and is whiter.
Bamboo shoots can be bought in one of three ways:
As always, fresh is best, but it is rare to find them like this outside of China. It can also be a bit daunting, as the outer layers or ‘scales’ must be peeled away to reveal the more tender inner heart (like cooking with artichokes). You can watch this video for a tutorial. Since ‘fresh’ implies bamboo that may not have already been boiled, you may have to pre-boil packaged fresh bamboo or those sold from large water tubs to soften them up enough for use.
Canned and packaged
The easiest substitute is canned and packaged bamboo shoots. Most of the canned types contain shoots cut into flat, uniform slices or long strips. And it shortens prep time. For example, the Dynasty Sliced Bamboo Shoots. It’s available in most of the supermarket.
A better choice may be larger cans of shoot tips such as Aroy-D Bamboo Shoot Tips, vacuum packaged whole bamboos (such as the picture on top of this page), and packaged frozen bamboo shoots. You can cut these into the size and shape you want. The longer and skinner shoots have a tenderer texture. The bigger bamboo shoot is usually sold pre-boiled, and have a firmer texture. You can find them in the Asian market, in the refrigerated section or freezer section.
Dried bamboo shoot are useful for off-season and for international shipping. You must soak them for several hours to rehydrate before use. The flavor, however, is maybe not as good as what you’d get from fresh or canned bamboo shoots.
If you live some way from an Asian store or don’t have enough time to visit one, you can find various types of bamboo shoots on Amazon and other online stores. But the price tag will probably be much higher!
Bamboo was introduced to the southern United States early in the 19th century. Now some families and small businesses actually harvest it there. If you’re lucky enough to live in the area, maybe you can even look into purchasing and growing your own edible bamboo plants!
How to Store Bamboo Shoots
To store any leftover canned bamboo shoots, as well as boiled or blanched fresh bamboo shoots, place them in a plastic container covered with fresh water. Seal well and keep in the refrigerator for several days, but not longer than one week.
You can store fresh unboiled bamboo shoots in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for one to two weeks. Traditionally in China, uncooked shoots are placed in cold water that is changed daily and stored in a cold, dark room, but this may be unrealistic for modern-day homes!
Bamboo shoots can all be stored for up to 6 months in the freezer.
Happy cooking! 😊