Long, long ago, in a remote village nestling in a forest on the Konkan coast, there lived a poor Brahmin priest who had a daughter and a son. Being poor, they lived off the forest where the trees and the plants amply supplied their simple needs with fresh fruits, roots and leafy vegetables.
The children grew up strong and healthy. When the girl came of age, her father started looking for a suitable groom for his beautiful lass. Wherever he went, he met with a demand for a dowry, which clearly was beyond his means.
Finally, a visiting relative took pity on the poor Brahmin and said, “Well, a wealthy priest of my town has a good looking son who should suit your daughter. Only, he’s a little wanting in intellect but quite good natured and the best thing is, his people are not asking for a dowry.”.
Soon, one discussion led to another and the marriage was celebrated with a feast, as grand as the poor Brahmin could afford. The newlyweds were taken to the groom’s town, the groom riding a horse and the girl in a palanquin with musicians in attendance.
Three days passed by. On the fourth day, as is the custom among Konkani Brahmins, the girl’s brother set off to his sister’s to bring the newlyweds back home on a visit for a few days. By the time they arrived, it was nightfall. It was raining heavily and the party was famished.
The priest’s wife had prepared many delicacies for her dear daughter and her only son-in-law. The sweet and spicy flavours of several mouthwatering dishes filled the air. The bashful new groom felt he could gulp down a cartload of food. Banana leaves were spread and hot rice was served with a dollop of fresh ghee. Soon, one delicacy after the other was placed on the leaf.
The simple, new, town-bred son-in-law had never tasted such yummy wild dishes before. One side dish in particular entranced him more than the others. He wanted to eat more and more of it. After eating three servings, he thought to himself, “What will they think of me if I ask for more?”. He asked his wife aside in a whisper, “What is this dish?”. She whispered back, “Kirlu”. Again, he asked, “What?”. She murmured “Kirlu” once more and jerked her head towards the bamboo blinds (curtains) hanging in front of the verandah. He could not make head or tail of it.
Tired after the long journey, they all went to sleep. The day dawned not with the crow of the cock, but with the shriek of the priest’s daughter. For she found herself alone in the room, which was latched from outside. Soon everybody woke up.
There was no trace of the son-in-law. As they came out, they found to their surprise and dismay, the bamboo blinds had disappeared entirely, and the verandah was dripping wet from the blowing rain. The question was – should they laugh or cry?
This story is about perhaps the tastiest of all vegetables – the tender bamboo shoot. Known as ‘Kirlu’ in Konkani and ‘Mulankoombe’ in Malayalam, it is indeed the most beloved vegetable of the Konkani people; especially so as it is available only once a year, during the beginning of the monsoon (rainy) season, in the months of July and August. This is precisely why the elder Konkanis practice the art of salting and pickling kirlu, jackfruit, mango and other edibles in season.
Bamboo, a member of the vast grass family, is one of the quickest growing plants in the world, for it often grows above 90 cm. a day and can reach several storeys of height. There are short decorative bamboos like the Buddha bamboo or the variegated bamboo as well as tall bamboos like the ‘Aeni mula’or ladder bamboo which are used to make long, single-pole ladders for harvesting pepper growing on vines clinging to tall trees.
There are bamboos which are no more than reeds, thinner than pencils growing alongside huge clumps of ‘Ana mula’ or elephant bamboos, with each column as thick as a bucket. Bamboos are used as building material in several countries. People make baskets, ornaments, musical instruments, mats, furniture, implements and even fishing nets with bamboo. Textile and paper industries are large consumers of bamboo.
The giant panda, the red panda of Nepal, the bamboo lemurs of Madagascar, the chimpanzees and the mountain gorillas of Africa, as well as the elephants of Asia all love to eat Bamboo. It is perhaps the people of the Konkan coast who have mastered the art of making dozens of delicious dishes of tender bamboo.
So too, many people of Kerala living in or near forests, especially in the districts of Wayanad, make delicious mulayari payasam – a sweet dessert made with bamboo rice. The Nepalese and the Chinese too consume large quantities of tender bamboo shoots, having lived in close proximity to bamboo forests for generations.
I wish to share with you some of my finest bamboo recipes as well as the art of processing, salting and pickling tender bamboo shoots.
Rising bamboo shoots are harvested from beneath the bamboo plants using a sharp machete (an axe or cleaver will do). Ideally, a foot (30 cm) tall shoot gives more tender portions for cooking. However, for tall, stalwart varieties, one can collect even 4 foot (1 metre) tall shoots too. Green bamboos are tastier, crispier and better for salting than yellow bamboos which are comparatively softer and get mushy when salted.
Cutting / Processing / Salting / Desalting 0f Tender Bamboo
Weigh and set aside a suitable, airtight container for salting. Keep a vessel half full of water nearby. Several types of bamboo shoots are covered with minute, shiny, sharp hairs that stick to your skin. It is better for inexperienced beginners to use a pair of gloves before taking up the bamboo shoots for cutting.
The bamboo shoots are encircled by sheets of thick leaves. Draw a fine line all around the base of the sheath with a sharp knife and grasping the outer, upper portion of the sheath, simply pull down and discard it. Remove the other sheaths too, one by one, likewise.
Now start cutting up the bamboo, starting from the base, discarding the inedible harder portions that are difficult to cut. Cut the tender portions roughly into chunks and put them straight into the airtight container, ready for salting.
As you start approaching the tip, you will find that the shoot is getting whiter and more and more tender. It is having plenty of tender leaves too. Chop the tender stem portions as well as the white tender leaves finely into thin juliennes and drop them straight into the water.
The very tip of the shoot is hard as plastic and is to be discarded. Process the rest of the shoots too in the same manner. Once you do two or three shoots, you will get quite proficient.
The sap of most bamboo shoots contain a substance called taxiphyllin (cyanogenic glycoside). Whereas animals which live on a diet of bamboo are able to digest bamboo together with its sap, such is not the case with the human digestive system. So humanity simply had to devise some easy means to consume safely this marvelous vegetable.
One only needs to soak the finely chopped tender bamboo shoots for 48 hours, taking care to change the water thrice daily. This leeches out the bitter taxiphyllin, leaving the bamboo ready to cook.
As wild bamboo shoots are available only in season, salting needs to be carried out in such a fashion, that the salted bamboo stays fresh and nice for at least a year. When you do it this way, it stays good for well over 3 years in room temperature so long as the airtight container is kept undisturbed. If you are opening it in between, use only a clean, dry ladle to take out the chunks.
Weigh the tender bamboo chunks (you can weigh them together with the pre-weighed airtight container and then deduct its weight). For every 350 gm. of bamboo, you require 100 gm. of powdered salt (ratio – 3.5: 1). Tip in the required salt, close the lid and shake the container vigorously and thoroughly so that the powdered salt sticks to all the chunks. Store it in a cool dark place.
Before use, the salted chunks need to be washed and soaked in water overnight. Soak them in plenty of water (at least 5 times the volume of the bamboo) for around 12 hours to get desalted tender bamboo chunks ready for cooking.
Konkani bamboo dishes:
Traditionally, the Konkani people are used to eating Kirlu by making Kirla nonché, kirla sukké, kirla bhojjo, kirla upkari, kirlu ambada ghashi, kirla sanna polo, kirlu dhanya bendi, tori bendi and gantiyé ghashi. I am hoping to share with you all these dishes (depending upon availability of hog plums – they are a bit difficult to obtain here in Wayanad and our trees are still too young to bear fruit) one by one together with a few more, surprisingly good, new creations. Till then!