Bamboo shoots: Add some bamboo to your diet for a little extra protein and exotic crunchiness

These days, it seems like there’s nothing you can’t do with bamboo. Surely you’ve heard about bamboo flooring. If you’ve ever been to Bambu Batu then you know about bamboo clothing and sheets and towels. You’ve probably heard about things like bamboo bicycles and toothbrushes. Then there are the more obscure items like bamboo charcoal and bamboo toothpaste.

One of the oldest uses of bamboo is actually for food. The fresh shoots of many bamboo species are surprisingly tasty and nutritious. Bamboo grows quickly and it’s easy to prepare. The shoots add great texture to a meal, as well as flavor, vitamins and minerals.

Botanical nameCommon nameDescription
Bambusa oldhamiiOldham’sVery popular clumping variety. Grows up 60′ tall and 4″ in diameter.
Phyllostachys aureosulcataYellow groove bambooOrnamental variety with a yellow stripe. Grows up to 40′ tall and 2″ in diameter.
Phyllostachys bambusoidesJapanese timber bambooDark green and very fast growing timber bamboo. Excellent for construction and furniture making.
Phyllostachys dulcisSweet bambooRunning bamboo cultivated for its sweet shoots.
Phyllostachys edulisMoso bambooRunning variety of timber bamboo. Widely grown for commercial uses.
Phyllostachys nigra ‘Henon’Giant grayA cultivar (subspecies) of Black bamboo, with beautiful bluish gray canes. Grows up to 60′ tall.
Phyllostachys nudaNudaVery dark green runner. Grows up 30′ tall and 2″ thick, with delicious shoots.

Can you eat bamboo?

So if you can wear bamboo, and sleep on it, and brush your teeth with it, and build a house from it, you sort of have to wonder: can I eat it too? Not surprisingly, the answer is YES. 

Eating bamboo is actually one of the oldest bamboo uses of all. It’s difficult to say for certain, but people in Asia have probably been eating bamboo as long as they have been eating rice. Some sources suggest that the cultivation of bamboo as a food source dates back some 7,000 years.

You might wonder how people could eat such a woody plant, prized for its hardness, used in flooring and cutting boards. In fact, when the fresh culms (or shoots) sprout up at the beginning of the growing season, usually spring or early summer, they are actually quite soft and tender. The important thing to know is that raw bamboo contains natural toxins (glycocides), and therefore must be cooked or fermented before they can be consumed by humans. So when we say to eat it fresh (which is usually best), that does not mean uncooked, it just means not dried, canned or fermented.

What are the best varieties of edible bamboo?

Among the couple thousand species of bamboo, most of them have edible shoots. But there are just a handful of varieties that the connoisseurs consider most delicious for eating. So consider growing one of the following strains, if you’d like to harvest your own garden and throw together a bamboo salad.

Also, check out our more recent article on 9 Bamboo species to grow for food.

  • Bambusa oldhamii: Here’s a variety that might even be growing in your garden. Oldhamii is a giant timber bamboo, and the most widely grown strain in the U.S. Its shoots are highly valued and known to be tender, fragrant and delicious. If your grove is fully grown and healthy enough, you might try harvesting some fresh shoots. Just remember to boil them before eating. If you buy canned bamboo shoots from the store, they are likely to be this variety.
  • Phyllostachys edulis: Also called Moso Bamboo, this giant timber variety is indigenous to China and Taiwan, and is also the most widely used for bamboo textiles. Mature stalks can grow nearly 100 feet tall and get to be several inches in diameter. Fresh shoots from a well-established grove can weigh more than 5 pounds; that’s a quite a meal. Depending what time of year it’s harvested, it may be dried or eaten fresh. 
  • Phyllostachys bambusoides: a large timber bamboo from Japan whose shoots are eaten either fresh or dried. Madake, as it’s also called, can grow more than 50 feet tall and 4 inches in diameter.
  • Phyllostachys aureosulcata: Widely grown as an ornamental, this species, known as Yellow groove bamboo, has a distinctive yellow stripe that runs along the culm grooves. Poles can grow up to 30-40 feet tall and 1.5-2 inches in diameter. The fresh shoots are quite tasty, without the bitter flavor, and can even be eaten raw.
  • Phyllostachys dulcis: The name says it all, sweet bamboo. This medium sized running bamboo is ideal for eating.

Of course, it’s a different story for the bamboo-loving panda bears. Their massive and specialized jaws, teeth and stomachs allow them to eat their bamboo mature and uncooked (i.e. hard and woody). For obvious reasons, we do NOT recommend trying this at home! You’ll find the young shoots to be far more tender and palatable.

If you plan to harvest shoots from your own bamboo plants, do it early in the growing season when the fresh culms are just beginning to emerge. Supposedly, the new culms that are still completely underground will taste the best. Slice them lengthwise in narrow strips for preparation.

How nutritious are bamboo shoots?

You wouldn’t think of woody bamboo stalks as being particularly high in nutrients. And they’re not, which is why panda bears have to spend almost the entire day eating (and chewing) just to get enough vitamins and minerals.

But as with many freshly sprouted seeds and grains, the young and tender bamboo culms are actually packed with nutrition.  That’s the stage when the nutrients are available and most highly concentrated. And when you think about the growth rate of these giant timber bamboos — some of them shoot up a foot or two a day — it should come as no surprise that those fresh, new sprouts are just loaded with fuel. 

Essentially, the young bamboo shoots are a great source of protein, minerals and fiber. At the same time, they are low in fat and sugar. By virtue of its growth habit, bamboo does not require any pesticides or fertilizers, unlike most commercial food crops. New research on the subject also suggests that bamboo can improve appetite and digestion, and even treat diseases like cancer. 

How does it taste?

Today bamboo shoots remain a very popular component in a wide variety of dishes throughout southeast Asia and beyond. But we don’t usually cook with bamboo because its exquisite flavor. Instead we use bamboo to add a little extra texture, as well as some fiber and protein. When it comes to flavor, we let those exotic Asian spices do the talking.

Bamboo makes an excellent addition to just about any kind of soup, curry or mixed vegetable dish. Meals that incorporate bamboo and coconut milk are especially popular in Indonesia and southeast Asia. Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about! 

Fermented bamboo is common in Nepal and northern India. If you’re a fan of fermentation, you can check this recipe for Bastenga and Kesei. You might also enjoy this recipe for kimchi and this article on the science of sauerkraut

The variety of culinary uses for bamboo shoots is virtually unlimited. So get a hold of some culms and get into it. If you don’t have a good grove in your backyard or a fresh bamboo vendor at your local farmers market, you can find canned bamboo shoots at most Asian specialty shops or major supermarkets.

We’ve heard that bamboo and spinach also go very well together. If you have a favorite bamboo recipe you’d like to share, please let us know in the comments section below.

Cooking with bamboo kitchenwares

If you like cooking and eating bamboo, chances are you also enjoy cooking and eating with bamboo kitchen implements. Bambu Batu carries a wide selection of kitchen tools, from travel utensils to cutting boards. If you check online, you can also find some very high quality bamboo cutting boards at Amazon. Ideal for use in the kitchen, wood from bamboo is extremely hard and naturally antimicrobial, making it resistant to germs and easy to keep clean. 

Bamboo kitchenwares at Bambu Batu

Featured Image: Fresh bamboo shoot of Phyllostachys parvifolia (Wikipedia)

Bamboo shoots pin