It took me a while to recognize bamboo shoots for what they were in Thai markets. The raw shoots on display in the markets often look more like rhino horns than part of a plant. In western markets, you will usually only see small cones for sale, if you see fresh shoots at all. But in Thailand you will commonly see large horns a foot or more in length.
Several kinds of bamboo shoots on sale in the market
One particular variety, rightly commonly referred to as Giant Bamboo (pai bohng), can have fresh shoots that reach more than a metre in length. This height can be reached in as little as a day, and the plant typically reaches its average maximum height of 30 meters in only a month. Nearly as large, and more commonly eaten, is a variety called pai nahm. I encountered a stall selling huge shoots of bamboo in the Lamphun municipal market one day. They were about the width of an adult's hand in diameter, and displayed standing end up to show their extraordinary length of a meter or more. The shoots had also been peeled to reveal their snow white flesh.
In Chiang Mai, the large Muang Mai wholesale market spills out onto the surrounding streets in the early morning to become a general market for street vendors and householders to shop for the day's fresh produce. Farmers from the countryside will come to spread out their wares on the side-walks and even in the streets themselves between the main market and the provincial offices. Here you will almost certainly come across someone selling bamboo shoots. There will likely be stacks of fresh shoots, as well as plastic tubs full of water with freshly peeled and cut shoots soaking. The vendor will occupy his time between customers peeling the shoots, cutting them into bite sized pieces, and then tossing them into the tubs of water, ready to be sold to the next customer.
As most people know, bamboo is a type of grass. There are a large number of varieties of bamboo found in Thailand. The country is home to nearly half of the world's known tropical bamboo species. About a dozen of these are 'cash crops' in Thailand, used for food, construction materials, toys, musical instruments and many other things. The shoots are just that: young sprouts of the plant that have not yet developed stems or leaves. The large size obtained by Thai farmers is attained in part by covering the new shoot with earth or a sheath while it increases in size, and preventing it from developing chlorophyll. As you might expect, bamboo shoots are high in fibre and low in calories. Fresh shoots are also a good source of potassium.
In cooking, Thais will add bamboo shoots to curries and stir-fries to add extra crunchiness and a mild foil for the spicy seasoning. There are very few recipes that feature bamboo shoots. In vegetarian dishes, bamboo shoots are often used to substitute for the meats in typical Thai recipes, so you can use them in green curries, holy basil stir-fries and many other dishes.
As anyone who has tried to grow bamboo knows, the plant can easily take over a garden and grow almost uncontrollably. Thus I found very interesting a quote attributed to Dr David Fairchild (1876 – 1954), the eminent botanist who founded the Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction section of the United States Department of Agriculture. Dr Fairchild travelled around the world looking for plants that the American people could use. He is reported as saying “The best way to control bamboo is to eat it.”