Bamboo shoots come in many shapes and sizes, available during different seasons of the year. They are hugely popular in Asian cuisine, particularly in Southeast Asia, and also feature in various Indian regional cuisines. While bamboo has become a familiar part of the gardening landscape for people outside Asia, the eating of bamboo shoots remains almost entirely absent from the culinary traditions of Europe and America.
Taiwan is notable for its affection for bamboo shoots of various types served in a wide number of guises. If you have ever had a traditional Chinese breakfast of congee, you may well have had preserved bamboo shoots which are a frequent side dish, and they appear on the dinner table in everything from cold collations to soups and stir-fries. Among the bewildering variety of bamboo shoots cultivated in Taiwan, arrow bamboo is one of the most prized due to its relatively small area of cultivation and short season. The arrow bamboo season heralds the spring, and is awaited with the same eagerness as the first asparagus (though it does have a second bloom in autumn, but the shoots at that time are regarded as inferior).
Arrow bamboo shoots have many similar qualities to the temperamental asparagus. Selecting shoots of the highest quality is especially important, as inferior quality shoots can be bitter and fibrous. It is important to carefully cut away every last vestige of fibrous husk, as picking the stiff fibers from between your teeth can seriously compromise the eating experience.
Arrow bamboo is valued for its crisp texture and mild flavor, and its two most common manifestations are in a light refreshing soup, usually with pork ribs or chicken, which highlights their flavor, or as a stir-fry, with shredded pork, where their texture comes to the fore.
Living in Hualien, we are particularly fortunate in regard to the arrow bamboo season, as one of the biggest areas of production is in the township of Guangfu. Driving through the township in March and April, the No. 9 Highway is dotted with stalls selling arrow bamboo. Outside each stall is usually a huge pile of husks, as the vendor engages in the labor-intensive process of husking the shoots for sale (though additional cleaning might be required in the kitchen).
Arrow bamboo shoots are particularly associated with the cuisine of Taiwan’s Aborigines, and were one of the earliest “foraged” foods to gain widespread traction in mainstream culinary culture. They have since been followed by such vegetables as bird’s nest fern and fiddle neck fern.
Indeed, arrow bamboo has become such a commonplace in Taiwan’s culinary landscape that it is often forgotten that unlike the winter shoots of the tortoise shell bamboo (冬筍) or the shoots of the Oldham’s bamboo (綠竹筍) that make their appearance in late spring, the arrow bamboo is uniquely associated with Taiwan’s indigenous cuisine and does not owe any debt to the culinary traditions of China.
Arrow bamboo was originally a foraged food, laboriously harvested from the forest floor and eaten only by Aborigines or dedicated foodies in search of new experiences. Increased production, particularly in Hualien County, has meant that these shoots have lost something of their foraged cache, but they are still thought of as “natural,” if not entirely organic, due to the relatively small-scale production. As the shoots are harvested only a few days after they appear above ground, there is little need for pesticides to keep away bugs.