I thought only pandas ate bamboo. Actually, I thought pandas ate eucalyptus and then realized when I was in Australia that I had mixed up pandas with koalas. Koalas eat eucalyptus. Pandas eat bamboo. Apparently, humans eat it too.
If you ask me which was my favorite meal in China, I’d have to say it was eating a bamboo feast at the Bamboo Sea. I had no idea how delicious fresh bamboo could be. Not only was the setting stunning, but the family that owned the restaurant was incredibly welcoming to my mother and I. Neither of us had eaten, or even heard of, the various types of bamboo that were listed on the menu. Shocked at the ignorance of the foreigners, they invited us into the kitchen to not only see the bamboo, but to watch our food being prepared. What a treat.
The dishes were simple and cooked in the classic Sichuan style: stir-fried with a generous amount of oil and covered in làjiāo. The thing that set these dishes apart was the freshness and the textures of the bamboo. From slightly crisp and fibrous to soft and spongy the bamboo was surprisingly varied. One type looked like sea coral with a porous weave and came in the shape of a ghost. Others were more firm and cut in a semi-oval shape with fringe in the middle like the teeth of a comb. The various textures complimented the other vegetables in the dishes well and absorbed a perfect amount of spicy oil. I knew that no matter how easy it looked for the chef to prepare, I would not be able to replicate these dishes at home.
I find that chefs seldom vary from the standard preparation of dishes in Sichuan. Tomato and eggs has only two ingredients (even though I’ve asked lots of places to add a little extra. They’ll always nod to confirm that they’ll put some green pepper or mushrooms in it, but they never actually do.) It says a lot about Chinese culture, really, but I’m getting ahead of myself. What I loved about eating at the Bamboo Sea is that they changed the standard dishes. They added bamboo to the tomato and eggs!
Even the rice had a bamboo twist. It was steamed in the bamboo trunk, which makes a natural cup shape. With a bit of minced corn added the rice had a slightly sweet taste and was much softer than rice made in a traditional cooker.
The restaurant specializes in two true, local delicacies. The first is the fungus that grows at the root of the bamboo plant. More difficult to harvest than any of the bamboo itself, these little mushrooms are a special treat. Personally, the chewy texture and round shape felt oddly like what I assume eating an eyeball must feel like and I wasn’t able to enjoy the dish. Not wanting to insult the chef I managed to choke down a few, but I didn’t like it. I kept asking my Chinese friend to confirm that what I was eating was a mushroom and not an organ.
The other local specialty, this one we didn’t try, was the bamboo rat. This is a species of rat that only lives in bamboo forests and can grow to be quiet large. The teeth are incredibly sharp since they’re needed to cut through the thick base of the bamboo. We saw a couple vendors selling dried rat in the park to be used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Apparently the fresh stuff is quite tasty, but expensive.
After lunch we set off again to explore more of the park. Leaving the restaurant I saw a bunch of chickens roaming freely around the forest. I had also seen some near the entrance to the forest and at other points during our hike too. Confused, I asked my friend why there were so many chickens.
“Because they’re delicious with bamboo,” she said.
So there you go. Try the chicken and bamboo combo. Or the bamboo and rat- whichever you prefer.