Tuesday, May 20, 2014

21. 竹笋生: "Bamboo Shoots Up"

(BGM: "A Rose In The Wind" by Anggun)

Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing
 初夏 Shoka: "Early Summer"
Season No. 7: 立夏, Rikka: 
"The Start Of Summer" 

According to the website theworldofchinese.com, the season rikka (from the Chinese lixia or "start of summer"), was traditionally celebrated by the eating of "red eggs" (double hard-boiled eggs cooked in black tea powder) to help strengthen the heart against summer heat.

Perhaps a lingering tradition borne of this Chinese custom, eggs in some form continue to top the ever-popular summer dish hiyashi chukka (冷やし中華) -ramen noodles served cold with shredded ham, julienned cucumbers, tomatoes and other cool additions. Any food that can soothe an overheated body is welcome this time of year! It's getting hot out there!

Climate No. 21: 竹笋生
Takenoko Shouzu
"Bamboo Shoots Up"
(May 15 -May 20) 

Bamboo shoots in a planter on display for the "Bamboo Festival" (Takehara, Hiroshima)
The first time I ever saw bamboo (竹 take), in the words of Matsuo Basho, "my sleeve became wet with tears." My host sister from Kyushu had taken me to the bamboo grove near her house where she used to play as a kid. The smooth, bright-green stalks as straight as pencils towered over us, with their spear-shaped feathery plumes swishing gracefully overhead in the winter breeze. Whenever a strong gust blew through, the tops of the bamboo knocked together, making a delightful music like wooden windchimes.

The famous Chikurin Bamboo Grove behind Tenryuji Temple, Arashiyama (Kyoto).
I was astonished by the strength and flexibility of these fantastic plants; the visual impact alone was enough to move me. But in my mind, they were also the ultimate symbol of the Far East. And there among real bamboo (not the unrelated and misnamed "lucky bamboo" sold in the States), I felt as if I had finally come home.

Me holding a felled stalk of young bamboo I found on the ground, still soft and pliable like rubber and covered in its fuzzy, protective husk. (Bamboo Joy Highland Park, Takehara, Hiroshima)
Bamboo is a much-celebrated plant in Japanese culture for its beauty and usefulness. To give you an idea of how much bamboo one can use in a single day, here's a short list of ten random ways I encounter it in my everyday life. In an average day, I...

1. Add bamboo salt (竹塩 takeshio) to my cooking.
2. Rest on a bamboo mat (竹シートtakesheet) to keep cool.
3. Use a bamboo scratcher (竹バックスクラッtチャー take bakkusukurattcha) when my back itches.
4. Use bamboo chopsticks (おはし ohashi) to eat with (nice ones, not disposable).
5. Cool myself with a bamboo folding fan (扇子 sensu).
6. Wash with bamboo charcoal soap (竹炭石鹸 takesumi sekken).
7. Place bamboo charcoal (竹炭 takesumi) under my sink and in the fridge to absorb odors and moisture.
8. Practice painting with bamboo brushes (竹筆 chikuhitsu).
9. Use a bamboo paddle (しゃもじ shamoji) to serve my rice.
10. Eat bamboo shoots (竹の子 takenoko) stir-fried with vegetables.

A dense bamboo thicket in Tamari, Takehara (Hiroshima Prefecture).
Bamboo has always played an important role throughout my life in Japan. I look to it for personal reminders of the reasons why I stay in this country. Their steadfast, evergreen stalks help me visualize how I wish to be as I grow older: strong, yet flexible enough to bend in the howling wind without snapping. When I feel particularly down or stressed about something, a walk through a bamboo thicket refreshes me like a cup of matcha tea, bright with cheerful positivity. It is the one plant I contemplate and meditate upon, visually soothing and serene.

 "A cuckoo cries, 
   And through a thicket of bamboo, 
     The late moon shines."  -Matsuo Basho

A secret bamboo trail in Takehara, Hiroshima.
If nature is a teacher, then bamboo must be the headmaster. I'll try to be a good student. ;-)

Taste Of The Season: 竹の子, Takenoko, Bamboo Shoots 

Grilled bamboo shoot with special Takehara miso and pickles (Kampo No Yado, Takehara, Hiroshima).
In the States, when we hear the word "bamboo shoots," we automatically recall little tin cans or glass jars with corny, pseudo-Chinese names, filled with slimy yellow slices of bitter, metallic fibrous mush.

I gotta put my foot down, here. That is not how they're supposed to taste!

Braised takenoko in sake broth. (A sweet present from a sushi chef in Takehara, Hiroshima).
When preserved in water and subject to an unnatural supermarket shelf life, bamboo shoots are robbed of all the sugars that give them their sweet, slightly caramel nuttiness. If harvested and prepared properly, the taste is smooth and gentle (definitely NOT bitter or tangy!) with the texture of perfectly-cooked carrot. This culinarily versatile food can be served a myriad number of scrumptious ways: tossed in stir-fries and stews, steamed in rice dishes or grilled over hot coals.

I was treated last year to a fantastic meal at Kampo No Yado (広島県竹原市湯坂温泉かんぽの宿), a hot springs resort with a restaurant featuring local delicacies from around Hiroshima and the Chugoku region. Gracing the menu were fresh-picked bamboo shoots from Takehara, a city famous for (and named after) its seemingly endless bamboo forests. (Takehara hosts bamboo festivals in both summer and winter). It was one of the most memorable meals I've had in Japan, finished off with a small cupful of precious Taketsuru sake brewed just around the mountain.

A few of the many dishes I enjoyed at Kampo no Yado in Takehara, Hiroshima.
If you have access to fresh bamboo, it's worth trying out a few recipes of this nutritious, delectable vegetable. An invaluable natural resource, bamboo is definitely food for both body and mind.

Copyright 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.

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