I just got back from a little trip to Kumamoto prefecture in Kyushu, the southern most main island of Japan. Last week was Golden Week, and I got wrangled into heading south-west for a few days. It was a long shinkansen ride there and back, but I got in some good foraging and onsen visiting while I was there, so it was worth it. While visiting an old family homestead where they are growing a few kinds of citrus and all kinds of vegetables, I got the chance to dig up some takenoko (たけのこ、竹の子、fresh bamboo shoots) in a little clearing beside the driveway leading to the house. The masters of the house, a couple in their 80s, if not 90s, were working there clearing weeds when we pulled up in the car. Equipped with a shovel and a hoe, I got a quick lesson in takenoko foraging. Basically, you go hunting around the ground until you spot a tiny little mohawk of leaves popping out from the grass and leaves. Once you spot one, grab a hoe and start digging up the dirt around the shoot. Keep digging all around until it’s all exposed. It may come loose, or it may need a solid whack at its base with the hoe or a shovel. I had a tough time spotting the things, but really got into digging them up. We used small sticks stuck in the ground as markers when we found one. Takenoko foraging etiquette dictates that you put the soil back and cover it back up with fallen leaves once you’re done.
I thought it was really great to be able to dig takenoko this past weekend as I was kind of bummed about missing a house party at a friend’s place in Tokyo where part of the festivities included the digging up of whatever shoots they could find around their place. The season is short and I have never been able to catch it until this year.
It is now the end of takenoko season, so the shoots we dug were on the small size, but we ended up finding 14 fresh little buds. Bamboo grows really fast and you need to get the shoots dug up when just the tiniest little leaves start poking up. Once the shoot has already grown even just a couple inches out of the ground, it is too late to harvest since it will have already grown too tough to eat. We needed to find the soft, tender youngins.
In the process of digging takenoko, I also learned about, what I will call, “bamboo paper;” that’s the dried outer leaves that fall off the fresh bamboo as it grows. It reminded me of how a snake sheds its outer skin. The bamboo paper comes off in large triangles and can be cleaned, dried, and pressed and then used as wrapping for food instead of plastic or foil. I guess that was the only way to pack a lunch back in the day. I collected some sheets, but haven’t tried using it yet.
In the bamboo grove, I also found some fuzzy berries that reminded me of strawberries, but I was warned not to eat them, as well as an old Japanese plum tree (ume 梅) that produced tiny little green plums that looked just like olives. So, note well, it is also now ume season.
Back to the takenoko that I dug up in Kyushu. Within an hour, I had 14 little babmoo buds, several sheets of bamboo paper, and four mosquito bites. Once back in the kitchen, the takenoko got dusted off, peeled, and boiled. I brought them back to Tokyo in a ziploc bag. I just ate some sliced up and fried in olive oil with a little salt and pepper, and placed atop a tasty lentil soup that I just made this morning. Deeeeelicious!
Takenoko is commonly spotted at veggie stands around Japan in spring. They are so much a part of cultural knowledge that there is even a chocolate treat produced in their image. This is a Meiji product and is a partner in junky convenience store goodness crime with a similar treat that is shaped as a mushroom. They are always in season and are just plain adorable. As with Toppo, they come in all kinds of novelty flavours like strawberry, matcha, chestnut, and reverse chocolate, but are extremely overpriced in online shops. The Meiji website is worth a visit though as the interactive flash game is just as adorable as the treat.