By Harold McGee
Bamboo shoots are the very young stems of several tropical Asian bamboos (species of Phyllostachys and others), which are woody members of the grass family. As the new shoots begin to break the soil surface, additional soil is heaped on to minimize their exposure to light and thereby their production of bitter cyanide-generating compounds. Cooks and food manufacturers then eliminate all cyanide compounds from the fresh shoots by boiling them in water until they’re no longer bitter. Along with Chinese water chestnuts and lotus root, bamboo shoots are valued for the ability to retain their firm, crisp, meaty texture during and after cooking, and even after the extreme heat treatment of canning. Their flavor has an unusual medicinal or barnyard note thanks to cresol, as well as more common bready and brothy aromas from simple sulfur compounds (methional, dimethyl sulfide).