Monday, November 18, 2013

Of bamboo shoots and coral rings

After getting off from work at the museum or library back in the early Eighties, I often would stroll over to Taipei’s downtown shopping area where endless shops lined the busy boulevards and narrow alleys. There I could easily spend many pleasant hours digging around for food treasures, something new to wear, or a great book, while other days I would just window shop.

One dusty place had me seriously intrigued: it was a jewelry store with the same lineup of old rings in the grimy windows every day, a mysterious array of trinkets that had never been moved, as could be seen by their healthy layer of dust and the delicate cobwebs that cemented them in place. There never was more than one light on inside, and compared to the glittering jewelry stores all around that catered to the bustling bridal business, this slovenly storefront definitely had little to recommend it.

Youmen chunsun
But one very old coral ring insistently called out to me from those dusty windows, and I’d look at it every time I passed by, then peer around to see if anyone was inside, and then stare at the ring some more. Finally, after turning my head practically upside-down, I could see the price tag peeking up from the tattered old display box. I did some serious bargaining calculations in my head, and figured how much it would finally go for. After hitting the post office where I stashed my cash (that is where Taiwan had the best and most convenient savings account system ever), I summoned up my nerve and banged on the door.

In the very back a light suddenly blasted out into the dark hallway. A puzzled older man shuffled his way to the front door, staring at me menacingly the whole time, opened it up a crack, and looked me up and down. “Whattayawant??” he growled in a rasping Shanghainese accent, cigarette smoke swirling around his ratty sweater like a leaden fog. “I’d like to try that coral ring on, please,” I said. “It’s not for sale,” he snarled as the door started to close.

“Wait!” I shouted. “What?” “This is a store, right?” “Hmph.” “And you have things in the window for sale, right?” He silently looked me up and down, then glared back in answer. “And now at long last you have a customer. Let’s try it on, shall we?” I put on my winningest smile and stuck a toe casually into the doorway.
Lovely spring bamboo shoots

He looked around me to see whether (I guessed) I had a gaggle of similarly annoying Americans in tow, and finding me reassuringly flying solo, he begrudgingly let me in, wrestled open the display case, and let me try on the ring, which wonder of wonders fit my fat fingers like a glove, a strange and wondrous sign in this land of the slender digits. 

“Now let’s discuss the price.” The reluctant shopkeeper rolled his eyes and made a halfhearted effort at bargaining, but clearly his main concern was finding a way to get this irritating foreigner out of his place toot sweet. He polished up the ring with a dirty rag, money and jewelry exchanged hands, and I strolled down the street, giddy at finally having my prize.

That jewelry shop never opened again and soon had a For Lease sign stuck in the grubby window. Friends told me that it probably had been a black market front, and I had been lucky to get out of there with so little trouble. Ah well, I thought, looking affectionately at the old gem on my right hand, sometimes you just never know where particularly good things may be hiding.

And that goes for food, too. The following famous dish from the bamboo-laced mountains of Zhejiang has the Chinese name of “spring bamboo shoots braised in oil.” The problem is that cooks invariably take that a bit too literally and turn out things that are drowning in the stuff. 

Actually, the oil should be there merely to help along the cooking process and provide a bit of luxurious mouthfeel against the stark cleanliness of the bamboo. The dish should not be seasoned with a heavy hand, either, as is usually done, because that would overwhelm the delicacy of the stems’ grassy flavor. For that reason I also season these lightly, with only the minimum of soy sauce, rice wine, and sugar to stimulate the taste buds.

You can serve this dish hot or cold or at any point in-between. I prefer just slightly warmer than room temperature, as this allows the oil to melt a bit and slide off the thin needles, and it also will make the oil subside into the background rather than coat the tongue like a glove. This is a great make-ahead dish that can be ready for guests or a simple contemplative meal by yourself as you congratulate yourself on your best purchases ever.

Oil braised spring bamboo shoots
Yóumèn chūnsŭn  油燜春筍
Serves 4

Shoots torn in half
14 to 16 ounces peeled and prepped spring (long, narrow) bamboo shoots, either fresh or frozen and defrosted (never use canned!)
1 cup filtered water
2 tablespoons Green Onion Mingyou, or fresh peanut or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
2½ tablespoons regular soy sauce
1½ tablespoons sugar

1. Start this a day before you plan to serve it. If you are using fresh bamboo shoots, place them in a saucepan, cover with water, and bring the water to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook them until the bases of the shoots are tender. (If there are lots of different sizes of bamboo shoots in there, fish out the little ones as they are done so that they are not cooked to death.). Rinse the shoots in cool tap water, and drain in a colander. Frozen bamboo shoots have already been cooked, so all you need to do is defrost them thoroughly and rinse.

2. Now shred the bamboo shoots into thinnish strips by notching the stem end with a paring knife (go down about a ½-inch or so if the stems are a bit hefty), and then pull the bamboo shoot apart. Try to get them all into more or less the same size strips, which should be around ½-inch wide. I like to leave the strips long because they are so pretty (the interiors look like ladders, so this could be called shoots and ladders, I suppose), but cut them crosswise in half, if you wish.

3. Place the bamboo shoots, water, oils, rice wine, and soy sauce (but not the sugar) in a saucepan, cover, bring to a boil, and then lower the heat to a simmer. Cook the shoots covered for about 30 minutes, or until they are completely tender at the thickest bases. Add the sugar, toss again, and cook over high heat uncovered until almost all of the sauce has evaporated. Toss the shoots in the thickened sauce and plate. Cool, cover, refrigerate overnight, and serve the next day either warm, cool, or hot (see headnote).


  1. What a great story---and now we're all dying to see the hard-won ring:)

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