King of the forest vegetables

Aziz Idris

Bamboo shoots, locally known as rebung, belong to the grass family and are a favourite among the locals.

Known as the ‘King of the Forest Vegetables’, bamboo shoots have been eaten for over 2,500 years. They are a highly prized vegetable in Asian cuisine and ranked among the five most popular healthcare foods in the world by some sources.

Bamboo is also symbolic of strength, resilience, humility, prosperity and grace.

In Asian cultures and various ethnic groups, every part of the bamboo plant is used ranging from construction for building support, simple housing, bamboo furniture as well as musical instruments and in paper production.

Bamboo is one of the most utilised and versatile plants on this planet.

Depending on species and growing conditions, bamboo shoots typically emerge in Brunei Darussalam during the wet and rainy season which is usually between May to August.

Bamboo shoots are best harvested by carefully digging around the underexposed culm beneath the ground, just as the tips start to poke through the forest floor mulch, by using a parang or spade close to the edge of the shoot. Once its shoot is separated from the roots, it will come free at the base. The bottom can be trimmed and then shaken to rinse excess soil from the bamboo shoot.

Freshly harvested bamboo shoots. PHOTO: AZIZ IDRIS & SUMBILING ECO VILLAGE

Cooking bamboo shoots involves shredding the shoot, boiling it, steeping it, changing the water and repeating the process (sometimes multiple times) until the bitterness has seeped away. Slicing vertically is the most common method and these slices are then boiled in water. Larger cuts will take much more time to boil, and are better for stews or similar dishes.

“They can be abundant but need to be harvested early to avoid bitterness,” said Mohd Zulazmi, affectionately called “Jeff”, a local resident from Kampong Sumbiling Lama where bamboo plays a significant role in everyday life.

Jeff comes from the Iban community whose ancestors were hunters and gatherers. He learnt to harvest these jungle delicacies when he was a teenager, foraging in the forest with his parents.

Today, areas of Kampong Sumbiling Lama still bear many exotic and native wild fruits. He is among many foragers in the area who still enjoy going into the jungle during the holidays or fruiting season to forage for these fruits, which are not only a part of their diet but also their day-to-day life.

“We eat bamboo shoots, which is like our staple food. We make our huts with bamboo and thatch, the roofs of our huts with bamboo leaves and even use them to make fences,” he said.

These bamboo shoots have been well liked by the Iban community for generations and Jeff believes in the goodness of naturally grown jungle plants.

He said they are free from pesticides and chemicals and have nutritional as well as medicinal values.

He said bamboo shoots are best harvested when they are only a foot or so tall.

Jeff recalled his healthy elders and their ‘natural’ diet which was almost oil-less, noting that deep fat frying was not part of the longhouse food preparation many years ago.

“For me, I like bamboo shoots as they have been cooked by my ancestors for many centuries. But nowadays, you can make them tastier by adding other non-traditional ingredients,” he said. “It’s really up to individual choice.”

More and more native dishes are now being promoted in restaurants thanks to the power of the Internet as well as promotions by the government and social organisations. This includes dishes from the likes of ambuyat, ayam pansuh (bamboo chicken) and even pakis (wild fern).