In early May, I was guided around a mountain by Haruki, a 9-year-old boy, who told me which wild bamboo shoots to harvest.
No, coronavirus hasn’t driven us all into the wilderness. Yet.
Searching for edible bamboo shoots, a practice known as takenoko gari, is a common springtime activity in Japan. Takenoko, literally “bamboo’s child,” are the cone-shaped sprouts of bamboo that start popping out of the ground in spring. Gari simply means “hunt.” Now that I think about it, takenoko gari could be translated as “hunting bamboo children,” if you needed to grab headlines, I guess.
To hunt for bamboo properly, first you need to know someone with land. In my experience, bamboo is usually found on steep hillsides in rural areas. In mountainous Japan, flat land is snapped up for building or farming, so wild bamboo generally only grows where it’s too steep for civilization.
Luckily, my good friend Masaaki Hashimoto has some countryside acreage in the family. He’s a lifelong takenoko hunter, and he’s as close as you’ll come to an expert on the topic.
On May 5, Masaaki invited my wife and me to a bamboo-covered hillside about 45 minutes outside of town. The timing is important as peak bamboo season lasts only a few weeks. In this region, bamboo begins to sprout in mid-April, and by mid-May the shoots have matured too much to be edible.
The Hashimoto family has harvested takenoko from this spot for many, many years, so Masaaki came prepared with the tools of the trade. Or rather, the tool. Bamboo shoots are dug out with a kuwa — an implement that looks like a cross between a garden hoe and a pick ax. While a garden hoe has a metal head about the size of an open hand, the kuwa’s head is narrower, longer and sturdier.
Kuwa in hand, we hiked up the steep, forested slope, always on the lookout for worthwhile takenoko. What does a harvest-ready bamboo shoot look like? Well, it’s complicated.
What you’re looking for is a shoot that’s somewhere between 4 and 8 inches tall, but you can’t judge by height alone. There’s kind of an iceberg situation going on with a bamboo shoot in that the bulk of the thing is beneath the surface.
The deeper down a bamboo shoot originates, the larger it can grow without being exposed to the sun. That’s a good thing. If the shoot is shallow, it breaches the soil too quickly and the direct sunlight makes it hard and inedible.
Masaaki recommends focusing on the color of the small leaves at the top of the takenoko. Yellowish leaves indicate a bamboo shoot that’s ripe for the digging. Even if it stands only a few inches tall, the yellow leaves indicate that underground, it should be large, tender and delicious.
Even with this knowledge, it’s best to have a guide. There’s more to analyze in terms of the thickness, coloring and surrounding terrain, so it takes a practiced eye. Luckily, Masaaki’s nephew and niece, 9-year-old Haruki and 6-year-old Kokomi, were on the scene and didn’t mind hanging with my wife and me.
These two kids have seen more bamboo shoots in their lives than I ever will, so I followed their advice. Haruki in particular instructed on the digging technique. You want to use the kuwa to pull away the soil around the bamboo so that you preserve the meat of the thing without hacking into it. As you dig deeper, you expose the white base of the takenoko, and eventually you’ll uncover a ring of purple bumps. Left to grow, these would become the bamboo’s roots. Now you’ve reached the bottom, and that’s when Haruki tells you to cut.
Bamboo shoots generally don’t sprout from seeds but instead from a long horizontal stem deep underground. This runner is known as a “rhizome,” and you have to chop your takenoko free from it. The shoot is tender enough that far down that it generally only takes a single clean strike at just the right angle to dislodge it. Again, local children can help you with the technique.
The hard work now done, we returned home with a sack full of takenoko. Just one of these can be as big as a football, so no couple really needs an entire sack. This leads to another Japanese pastime in spring: unloading surplus takenoko on your neighbors who themselves unloaded their surplus takenoko on you just days before.
A final point — your hard-won bamboo shoots are toxic. They need to be boiled and sometimes reboiled to make them safe for human consumption. At that point, they can be eaten straight, stir-fried, steamed with rice or prepared like any other crunchy vegetable.
Bamboo shoots find their way into everything in the month of May, so we are just on the tail end of it now. You do eventually get sick of them. But then 11 months pass and sometime in early April you find yourself in the mood for takenoko again. By this time, you’ve forgotten all the tricks of the trade. Luckily, Haruki and Kokomi are just a phone call away.