It's true gentle readers, the Japanese government should just give me my Japanese passport right now. I drove two hours out of Tokyo to eat takenoko or bamboo shoots, which are a seasonal delicacy in the Spring here on this fair island, and the window in which you can eat them fresh is not very wide. What's more, I drove there with the beau, thus making it a date. A date where you drive two hours in a rented car to eat something. During Golden Week, busiest and most hellish time of the year to be on the road (we are talking traffic jams that are 40km long). Let me put it all together one more time: I went on a date where we drove two hours during the busiest time of year to eat bamboo shoots. If that doesn't make me Japanese I don't know what will short of plastic surgery and a personality make-over.
Now judging from my above tone, you may think I was dragged kicking and screaming on this adventure of sorts. Not true. In fact, it has been three years in the making. Shortly after I arrived on Japan's fair shores I was watching TV at my little apartment in Nakano and managed to catch part of a special on ideas for a short trip to Chiba during Golden Week. And what do you think was being featured? That's right, takenoko, which you can not only drive far to eat in a fabulous and never-ending course meal, but can experience digging for from the ground with your own two hands. Truth be told, if I used the word "scrumptious" I would tell you that the takenoko course meal featured on that TV show looked positively scrumptious. It didn't hurt that it was served in a quaint little minshuku in a huge tatami'd room with floor to ceiling windows opening onto a bamboo forest. So I grabbed a pen and scribbled down whatever I could catch about the name of the place and where it was and after a quick google I had my target picked out. (I never realized how exponentially information on Japan increases when you actually google shit in Japanese...funny that.)
Anyway I have often dreamed of the takenoko since that time and declared to myself that I would make the bamboo pilgrimage to Chiba to eat some before leaving Japan. I believe it was last year that we first tried to make a reservation and ended up calling around to five places to learn that you have to book WAY in advance. Disappointed, I took it in stride (after a short tantrum) and this year in March I dispatched orders for the reservation call to be made. (In fact, there is a very high possibility that I had something like "RESERVE BAMBOO" pencilled in my diary around February 16.) Well what do you know, doing stuff in Japan isn't always impossible and frustrating - we secured our reservation for one of the days during GW.
I don't think I've ever gotten so excited about eating such a root-like and phallic vegetable before (those black spikes in the picture above are the growing bamboo). For days leading up to the big day, the beau and I spoke in urgent whispers about how exciting our takenoko adventure was going to be and speculated on just how many courses would be served (answer to follow).
You can buy packaged takenoko any time during the year at the supermarket here and I think if you are served it any time other than Spring it has probably been imported from China. But usually from around March to May each year, restaurants in Tokyo will add takenoko to their seasonal menu along with some other unique and delicious spring veggies, and well, it's just great. In the past I've only had it as tempura, steamed or simmered in a broth but I love the texture and couldn't wait to try it in other forms.
A lot of takenoko comes from Chiba, so if you want to eat a full course meal consisting of takenoko, takenoko and more takenoko, there are several places there to accommodate you. You can also try digging for takenoko yourself if you want the full experience, both at the places serving a course meal and at roadside stalls selling fresh takenoko. Apparently the best time to go bamboo-hunting is at the crack of dawn, when the takenoko is just starting to make a mound in the earth from growing upward. Once the tip breaks the surface, the takenoko should no longer be dug up for food, so it truly is a hunting situation when you have to crouch and peer at the earth for the tell-tale signs that a takenoko is under there, just waiting to burst forth. In the city I had only seen small takenoko, presumably already "husked" from the outer layers but the takenoko being sold out in rural Chiba were sometimes a foot or more long and weighing a good number of kgs.
The minshuku we went to was fantastic and just like in the TV program. We ate takenoko in a simmered dish with other seasonal vegetables, as crunchy karaage (pic), roasted in foil, in miso soup, in takikomi gohan (rice dish), as tempura, and as thin slices of sashimi (pic). The only non-takenoko dish served was ayu, a small fish ("sweetfish"?!) that I understand is seasonal and not too abundant in Tokyo. Despite what the pictures below (y'all know this isn't a food blog), everything was Super Tasty. The karaage was hands down the best, simply because they got the fried (and lightly seasoned) shell so nice and crispy that it contrasted nicely with the softer fibrey crunch of the takenoko inside (it is precisely descriptions like this that explain why this is not a food blog). The only thing missing from the meal was a cold draught beer.
After we were stuffed and had both declared we were just about set for takenoko consumption until Spring next year, we paid and made the trek back to Tokyo. And despite being Japanese, I was somehow able to resist making us stop off at the famous Umihotaru rest area (and so much more) built on the fake island in the middle of the Aqua-line. It too, has been featured quite often on TV shows lately ("how to enjoy a fun day at a rest area") but the takenoko hunting was about as much excitement as I could handle in one day. One thing I have realized - it is actually pretty fun being Japanese.