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Grandma's Kitchen:   The Ever Pan-Tropic Bamboo and Indonesian Soup

Grandma's Kitchen Picture by Grant Wyborney
Bamboo, the Panda Bear's favorite food, has found many uses throughout the world. Actually a tropical and semitropical grass (whose sub-family is Bambusoidea), its hardiness and almost virulent ability to survive in adverse conditions has caused some people to consider it a weed. Its Chinese name is Chu in Mandarin and Chuk (Chuck) in Cantonese. The Chinese pictograph for Bamboo was originally two branches pointing (drooping) towards the earth instead of pointing upwards, and has evolved into its modern form. The symbol for a multitude or forest of bamboos is, and was used in old Chinese Buddhist texts to refer to India.

Chinese poetry and art has always made use of bamboo. The great 9th century poet Po Chu'-i wrote a poem entirely devoted to planting bamboos, and tells us of its ability to soothe a jaded and broken heart just by listening to the gentle, dry, autumn breezes in its leaves. Japan's greatest swordsman, Musashi, who also is an important figure in Buddhist literature and art, produced many beautiful and profound drawings and paintings of bamboo. Chinese calligraphers prefer to use the brushes known as "Bamboo/Orchid brushes" which are made of the finest mink fur in order to produce the fine lines and curves bring to mind the grace and delicacy of bamboo leaves in their writing.

Although it is a grass, it often resembles trees, with perennial (year round) jointed stems that are hard, springy, and often hollow. In fact, the main difference between common grass and bamboo is the petiole that bamboo has - a connective stem that supports and joins the leaves to the main branch - whereas grass leaves branch out directly from the main stem.

Some species of timber bamboo grow as high as 120 feet. Bamboo is often used in the third world (both in Asia and the Americas) in construction as roofing material as well as weight-bearing frame members of walls, in furniture, canes, baskets, fishing weirs, and in many other applications. The young tender shoots (subterranean roots) of certain species of bamboo are eaten in many different places around the world. Some Indonesian recipes for cooking bamboo are given at the end of this article.

Bamboo presents some interesting problems to botanists. For example, after germinating, all the members of a species worldwide will flower and bear fruit after roughly the same amount of time. Some species have periods of florescence (flowering) of several years, and others will flower after 80 or even 120 years. However, in 1753, Linnaeus described Bambusa vulgaris, or "common bamboo" in his work Genera Plantarum. But to this day no one has seen the flowering or bearing of fruit in this species, yet it must act like all other bamboos because of its widespread population around the world. Botanists still are waiting for this to happen.

No one can say with certainty where bamboo originated. It is pan-tropic - that is it grows everywhere, except in very cold climates. But there are even species that can survive freezing. The Chinese government recently conducted research into a method for selecting the species that will survive in cold climates, in particular Beijing, because of interest in its ornamental and industrial uses. They found that a species' ability to survive freezing is roughly equivalent to its sugar content, which can be measured electronically. However, it is known that the existence of two Chinese genera, Monocladus and Ampelocalamus, are older than the separation of Hainan Island from the province of Yunnan, which occurred before the separation of the islands of Taiwan.

Today, China exports young shoots of Qiongzhuea to Japan for consumption as food. This species has been famous for its Qiong Zhu sticks since the Han Dynasty, some 1200 years ago. These sticks were prized because of their fine grain, strength, and beauty, and were exported to India and also reached Persia. It is a pretty good guess that there was once a "south silk way" from southwestern China to Persia. Commodities like the Qiong Zhu sticks and clothing from Sichuan were introduced into India, central Asia, and even Africa through this route.

Bamboo has been used widely in cooking in Asia and the Pacific Islands for thousands of years. Many classic dishes have been introduced into the European and American continents by Asian peoples, such as the Chinese, Malays, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Thais. Much of the bamboo used for cooking in Europe and the Americas is purchased already cooked and canned, but the preparation of bamboo shoots in Asia and the Pacific Islands makes use of the raw, unprocessed plants, yielding a flavor and texture that is largely unknown here.

Depending on your point of view, bamboo adds to our lives in a number of ways. It gives us shelter, clothing, food, and reminds us of the harmony and beauty that exists in nature. The next time you see bamboo, remember that it is more than just food for the Pandas.

In the recipes that follow, use the milk from a whole coconut or canned coconut milk.

Indonesian Recipes for Bamboo Soup

Lodeh Rebung – Mixed Bamboo Shoot Soup with Coconut Milk

  • 1-1/2 kg bamboo shoots
  • 100 grams of Bok Choy leaves
  • Tempeh (fermented soybean cake)
  • 1/2 coconut to make coconut milk
  • 5 onions, 3 cloves garlic
  • 3 red chilis
  • 2 Aleuritas moluucann (Indian walnut - substitute California walnuts)
  • Coriander leaves
  • Palm sugar, salt

Slice the bamboo shoots and boil until soft. Roast the chilis, onion, and garlic. Grind all the spices except the coriander leaves. Boil the coconut milk, add the bamboo shoots and all other ingredients, and stir until cooked.

Garang Asam – Hot and Sour Chicken or Beef with Bamboo Shoots

  • 1/2 chicken or 1 kg beef, and
  • 1 bamboo shoot, water
  • 10 onions, 2 cloves garlic,
  • 5 chilis
  • Coriander
  • Roasted tamarind seeds
  • Salt

Chop the chicken into small bite-size pieces and slice the bamboo shoots. Finely grind 5 of the onions, 2 cloves garlic, and 3 chilis with salt. Boil the water with the roasted tamarind seeds. Add the chicken and the bamboo shoots. Coarsely chop the remaining spices and add them to the soup with the ground spices. Continue cooking until the chicken is tender.

Gulai Manis Rebung – Sweet Bamboo Shoot Soup

  • 1 bamboo shoot
  • 1/2 coconut for making coconut milk
  • 100 grams of beef strips
  • 4 spoons of oil
  • Coriander
  • 2 red chilis
  • 1/4 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
  • Salt

Slice the bamboo shoot and boil. Meanwhile fry the beef strips in the oil. Chop the chilis and onions. Boil the coconut milk with the spices. When the coconut milk has boiled, add the sliced shoots and fried beef strips. Stir and return to a boil. Continue cooking until the shoots are thoroughly cooked.

Gulai Manis Rebung – Sweet Bamboo Shoot Soup

  • 1/2 bamboo shoot
  • 1/2 coconut for making coconut milk
  • 3 onions
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • Chili powder
  • Ginger
  • Turmeric
  • Mustard seeds
  • Turmeric leaves
  • Mustard
  • Salt

Chop the bamboo shoot into small cubes, then soak in water for 2 days. Then pass the shoots through a sieve. Grind the spices except the turmeric. Boil the coconut milk, add the spices and stir well.

Add the chopped bamboo shoot, and bring to a boil while stirring. Serve immediately.

Beko – Fish, Pumpkin, and Bamboo Shoot Soup

  • 1 pumpkin
  • 1/2 dried fish
  • 2 bamboo shoots
  • 1 coconut for making coconut milk
  • 3 coriander leaves
  • 10 tamarind leaves
  • 2 chilies
  • Salt

Peel the pumpkin and chop coarsely. Then boil until it is soft. Rinse the pumpkin under cold running water and drain, then set aside. Clean and prepare the fish by slicing into fillets. Cut the fish fillets into small, bite-size pieces. Crush the chilis and the salt, and cut the coriander leaves and tamarind leaves into small pieces. Place the coconut milk, the pumpkin, and the bamboo shoots into a pot, along with the spices and bring to a boil. Add the fish and cook for another 10 minutes until the fish is tender, but not overdone.

Capcay – Mixed Vegetables and Bamboo Soup

  • 1/2 chicken
  • 1 bamboo shoot
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 cabbage
  • 1 leafy onion
  • 5 onions
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • Salt and pepper
  • 3 tablespoons of oil

Chop the cabbage, carrot, and the chicken into small bite-size portions. Slice the bamboo shoot into thin slivers. Chop the onion and crush the garlic, and then sauté in the oil. After they are yellow and translucent, add the chicken, cabbage, and carrot and continue sautéing until the chicken is browned. Add salt and pepper to taste. Then add water and bring to a boil and continue cooking until the chicken is tender.

Originally published in Volume 8 of the Journal of the American Bamboo Society and reprinted with permision of the author.

Resources for Bamboo:

  • Tsing-ya Bamboo Gardens, Mr. Ken Brennecke, (619) 753-0806. Many common species and varieties of bamboo, and some species that are found in no other American nurseries. Practical advice on propagation and cultivation of bamboo, and its use in contemporary landscaping. This nursery has supplied the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park with many of bamboo plants.
  • The Journal of the American Bamboo Society. A journal devoted to the exchange of information on bamboo, with a worldwide circulation.
  • The American Bamboo Society http://www.halcyon.com/abs/
  • Bamboo Resources http://www.shakuhachi.com/TOC-Bamboo.htm

Grant Wyborney is a free-lance writer with a special interest in Asian culture and philosophy. He is currently co-editor of the Journal of the American Bamboo Society.

If you have any easy, tasty Asian recipes to share, please send them to us at P.O. Box 23744, San Diego, CA 92193-3744. E-mail: editor@jadedragon.com. If we use your article, we will send you a Jade Dragon Online t-shirt.

Other recipes from Grandma's Kitchen:

Soybean Magic
Fiesta – Filipino Style
Chinese Kitchen Medicine
Filipino Party Foods
Healthy Summer Eating
Vietnam’s Chicken in Lemon Grass
Korean Homestyle Cooking
Prosperity for the New Year
The Fine Art of Korean Cooking
Tofu Bubble and Chinese Cabbage
Shrimp Hui Tofu
Fighting the "Baby Fat" Blues with Asian Food
Connie's Cuisine
Eat Drink Man Woman - Starring .... Food
Asian New Year's Recipes
More Asian New Year's Recipes

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