Friday, February 21, 2014

Experience Japan: Finding the Forest for the Bamboo…

Feeling like a squirrel, I ceased my manic scamper and centred myself.

I stood in deep green, surrounded by the whispering hush and soft clanking of bamboo trees. I was lost in Arashiyama's lanky forest just outside Kyoto Japan. No matter, I thought; all paths lead to bamboo. Wait. That didn't make sense...or did it? 

I craned to gaze up at the vaulting canopy of velvet green. Did you know that bamboo is, in fact, an exotic giant grass that evolved from  prehistoric times? And by virtue of its somewhat magical properties (e.g., size, lightness and strength) bamboo is considered an "extreme product of nature"? Bamboo is stable, incredibly strong and durable, in addition to being an extremely light and elastic building material.

Bamboo has inspired Japanese artists and artisans for centuries. Its elegant linear form features in teahouses, interior designs, fences, in the martial arts, music and art of Japan. By the 10th century, bamboo had become a crucial part of Japanese culture and was considered "the incomparable finest material" for everything from arrows and spears to ladles and whistles. 

I leaned closer to examine one of the smooth segmented trunks. According to Environmental Graffiti, bamboo posses a higher tensile strength than many steel alloys, a higher compressive strength than various cornets, and is--bonus--indigestible to termites. Bamboo is incredibly smooth; it has no knots or rays like most wood you and I are familiar with. Its fibres give it both great strength and great flexibility. For instance, houses built from bamboo have withstood earthquakes of 9.0 magnitude. Bamboo gets its strength from the lignification of the tube walls that--like our hard woods--conduct nutrients and water in the giant grass. 

Bamboo also grows faster than any other woody plant in the world. Some species of bamboo can grow four feet in just a day (24 hr). Most species of bamboo grow up in just five years, and some are known to double in size in just a single day. Bamboo can regenerate its full mass in six months after being cut; it takes most trees at least 30-50 years. Hard woods like the oak tree barely grow an inch in a week and cat take up to 120 years to reach maturity. Its rapid growth makes bamboo a highly renewable resource. It can be re-harvested every three years without causing adverse effects on the environment.

Bamboo is fast being recognized throughout the world for its versatility in providing an alternative choice for a variety of things from dishier to highly absorbent clothing!

Bamboo shoots (sprouts) are of course edible and commonly used in Asian dishes and broths. The new bamboo culm that spouts out of the ground is rich in potassium (good for maintaining normal blood pressure and steady heart beat). Conical and creamy-coloured, the tender shoots are cut from the bamboo plant when they're about 15 cm (6 inches) high. They have a pleasant mild "nutty" flavour, resembling artichoke and a soft-crunchy texture.

Here's a wonderful recipe from for Shrimp and Bamboo Shoot Curry:


2 lbs medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons peanut oil or 4 tablespoons corn oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped (3/4 cup)
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 inch fresh ginger, finely chopped
3/4 cup chopped fresh tomatoes or canned tomato
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon hot red chill pepper flakes (of less to taste)
4 cups fresh bamboo shoots, sliced into thin julienne strips (can substitute canned)
1 cup fresh coconut milk (or canned coconut milk plus 1/2 cup plain water)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander, for garnish

Instructions on Preparation:

Bamboo forest in Arishiyama Japan
1. Marinate the shrimp in the lemon juice and salt for 1 hour

2. Heat the oil in a pan, add the onion, and stir fry it over moderate heat until it turns light brown. Add the garlic and ginger and stir fry another minute. Add the tomato and mix well.

3.  Add the cumin, coriander, turmeric and chill flakes and stir for a minute or two to integrate all the seasonings. Add the shrimp and marinade, bamboo shoots, and the coconut milk and water. Simmer the mixture over low heat for 15-20 minutes. Adjust the salt if necessary.

4. Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let stand for 10 minutes, which allows the coconut milk to be absorbed by the shrimp and bamboo shoots. Garnish with the fresh coriander.

5. Serve warm with while rice and a variety of table chutneys and pickles.

OK... Now I was definitely hungry... time to find my way out of the forest and into one of Kyoto's finest restaurants... See you there! MEOW!

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