Family: Poaceae (Gramineae; grass family)
Scientific Names: Psyllostachys species, Bambusa species, + others.
• “Bamboo,” the genus name Bambusa, and the grass tribe name Bambuseae are based on bambu, the Malay name for bamboo. The word in Malay means “explosion.” Natives used to clean foliage out of bamboo groves with fire before harvesting the stems, with the result that the hollow chambers in the bamboo stems exploded from the heat.
• The genus name Psyllostachys is based on the name of psyllium (Plantago psyllium L.) + stachys, spike, referring to the similarity of the flowering head. The plant psyllium provides a bulk-forming laxative with the same name, which is high in fiber and mucilage.
Bamboos are mostly big, long-lived, woody, evergreen grasses. There are more than 1200 bamboo species distributed around the world, classified into 70 genera of the grass tribe Bambuseae. Some are dwarves growing only to 15 cm (6 in.) in height, whereas others are giants rising to 37 m (120 ft.) and developing stalks 20 cm (8 in.) in diameter. Bamboos are native to Africa, Australia, and the Americas, but the largest number of species is found in Asia, with close to 300 originating in China. The flowers of most plants are quite prominent and useful in identification, but most bamboos do not flower often. The most noticeable characteristic of bamboo is the division of the stem into distinct nodes or joints with intermediate smooth sectors called internodes. The internodes are mostly hollow, whereas the nodal junctions are solid. In many parts of the world, bamboos are not only used for food but also for fodder, for construction material, and for making a great variety of useful objects from kitchen tools to paper to dinnerware. In China, 7 million hectares (17 million acres) are devoted to growing bamboo, in both natural forests and plantations. Bamboo shoots, like asparagus, are thick, pointed shoots that emerge out of the ground and if left unharvested, develop into stems. As with asparagus and several other vegetables, earth is sometimes hilled up around the shoots to blanch them, that is, to produce whiter, more succulent material. Shoots of most bamboo species are edible, but bamboo shoots are collected primarily from several species, particularly of the genera Psyllostachys and Bambusa. Young stems are harvested when about 15 cm (6 in.) in height.
Bamboo shoots have long been popular in Asian cooking and are often found as a sliced, crunchy, creamy white vegetable in Asian food. Spring shoots are larger and tougher than winter shoots. The winter type is lighter in color, softer, tastier, and more expensive. Fresh bamboo shoots are generally not available in North America, but canned shoots are easy to obtain. Whole shoots in cans are preferred but are sometimes also available sliced. Canned bamboo in water rather than brine is also preferable. Some cooks simmer canned shoots in broth or water for 1 to 2 minutes to reduce the canned taste. Sun-dried bamboo shoots are also sometimes available. In China, bamboo shoots are typically added to dishes such as soups or stews. In Japan, bamboo shoots, known as takenoko (literally “child of bamboo”), are commonly consumed as featured dishes or parts of dishes- grilled, boiled in soups and stews, steamed with rice, and deep fried in tempura.
Bamboo shoots are usually cooked in salted water before eating to remove bitter, poisonous chemicals (cyanogenic glycosides). The taste of bamboo shoots has often been compared with asparagus, and in fact most of the methods appropriate for preparing asparagus are also suitable for bamboo shoots. The majority of bamboos native to temperate regions can be eaten without cooking if they are not too bitter. Phyllostachys edulis (Carriиre) J. Houz. (P. pubescens Mazel ex J. Houz., known as “moso in China and Japan) has potentially toxic concentrations of cyanogens. It is the most important temperate region bamboo harvested for shoots, is usually somewhat bitter, and is always cooked before eating. Eating large amounts of raw shoots at one time is inadvisable unless one is sure of their safety. Generally, travelers in tropical areas should not experiment with eating unidentified bamboo shoots that they have personally collected because they may be poisonous or contain a hard outer coat or irritant hairs that must be removed.
In addition to the recently emerged asparagus-like stems (i.e., shoots), the more mature stems and leaves of some bamboos are eaten locally where the species grow. The heart or pith (internal soft tissue) of the bamboo stem can be sweet, and bamboo sugar may accumulate as a residue in the joints of some species. In the East Indies, this bamboo sugar is extracted as tabasheer and is considered to be medicinal. In China, beer and liquor are manufactured from sweet bamboo juice. Bamboo fruit is often pear shaped, reminiscent of a corn cob, and is considered to be a delicacy in Japan. Bamboo leaves are used to wrap food for steaming as well as to line steamer baskets. In Chinese cuisine, they are often used to enfold a filling of glutinous rice to make dim sum (Chinese snack food).
Bamboo seeds are sometimes crushed to produce “bamboo flour,” used as a thickener in Chinese cuisine.
• In Southeast Asia and India, pickled bamboo sprouts are frequently used to prepare achar (achard), a popular hot condiment or pickled salad that is variously concocted. • Dried sticks made of soybean curd are generally simply called “bean curd” or “dried (bean curd) sticks” but are sometimes called “bamboo” (and “second bamboo”) because of the resemblance to bamboo in texture. These are found in Chinese and Japanese markets and are soaked before becoming pliable enough to cook.
• A “bamboo cocktail” is a beverage made with orange bitters, sherry, and dry vermouth, stirred with ice, strained, and served in a wine glass with a lemon peel. Bartender Charlie Mahoney of the Hoffman House in New York is said to have invented it about 1910. “Bamboo juice” is slang for alcoholic beverages, a phrase that originated with the U.S. Air Force while stationed in the South Pacific during the Korean War.
• “Bamboo salt” is a salty substance extracted from bamboo stems, used mostly in China for medicinal purposes, but occasionally used as a condiment.
• The so-called “bamboo tea” is tea (typically a strong, bitter Chinese black tea) packaged in serving portions (often two portions for a pot) in bamboo leaves.
CURIOSITIES OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
• In old China, a “bamboo wife” was a cylinder of woven basketwork upon which a sleeping person sprawled. Cool air circulating through it made sleep more comfortable. • The world’s tallest grass, sometimes growing to a height exceeding 40 m (130 ft.), is Dendrocalamus brandisii (Munro) Kurz, which produces huge, delicious bamboo shoots. • Bamboo grows quite differently from trees. A tree has a layer of living tissue around the outside of its trunk just beneath the bark, which adds an ever increasing circle of wood around the central mass (the concentric annual rings in transversely cut timber). In contrast, bamboo stems emerge from the ground as buds with the same diameter as the final stem. All they do is grow taller. The thickest bamboo stems developed are only about 30 cm (1 ft.) in diameter.
• Some bamboos can grow in excess of a meter (about a yard) a day. • The giant panda in the wild survives by eating bamboo species, particularly Gelidocalamus fangianus (A. Camus) P.C. Keng & Wen. Pandas spend about 12 hours a day eating bamboo, consuming 30 kg (66 lb.) daily, equal to about one-third of their body weight. • Giant pandas lack an efficient digestive tract, absorbing less than 20% of the food energy from their diet of bamboo. A single adult male can produce 20 kg (44 lb.) of dung in a day. The 40 or so pandas that live in the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Base in Sichuan province, southwest China, produce about 200 tonnes of excrement a year. To lessen the annual maintenance cost of millions of dollars, an effort was initiated in 2007 to turn the fiber-rich waste into a range of products, including greeting cards, bookmarks, notebooks, and even refrigerator magnets.
• Some bamboo species flower simultaneously after several decades of growth, with all of the plants in a region blooming at the same time and then dying. This can be disastrous, both for animals that depend on the bamboos for food and habitat and for humans who rely on bamboo for wood. There is therefore some validity to the common belief throughout Southeast Asia and the East Indies that when bamboo does flower, famine approaches.
• Kendo is a Japanese form of fencing using bamboo foils or wooden swords.
• The first light bulb filament, made in 1882 by Thomas Edison, (1847–1931), was constructed of carbonized bamboo fiber and is still functional in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.