Bamboo shoots. Takenoko.
Dug in the morning in a Kyoto bamboo forest and served the same evening in Tokyo. Slowly grilled over charcoal till the outer sheaths are charred and the inside is sublimely sweet and creamy.
That's the way they're prepared by chef Jun Kurogi, at his namesake restaurant in Yushima.
But these are no ordinary bamboo shoots: they are shirako takenoko [白子筍].
It's not just that these are the very first of the season from Kyoto — they appear around late March (any earlier in the season, and the bamboo shoots served in Tokyo are sourced from Kagoshima or elsewhere in Kyushu).
What makes the shirako so special is that they are dug from deep down in the ground.
Bamboo shoots always have to be extracted before they break the surface of the soil and start converting their sugars into green, fibrous sprouts. But shirako are excavated from much deeper down, close to the root system — at least a meter below the ground.
This means they have very little of the bitter astringency of even the freshest takenoko. They are also a beautiful creamy white colour, hence their name (literally, shirako means "white child").
That's what is lurking under the charred exterior…
Chef Kurogi pares off the charred outer layer, slices the soft inner flesh and brushes on a shoyu-based sauce.
Then he serves them with a generous scoop of aoyose — white miso mixed with crushed kinome (sansho leaf).
So simple so good, with lots of sweetness and only just the very slightest hint of aku bitterness at the end.
Needless to say, shirako takenoko are extremely rare and similarly pricy. In fact, you are unlikely to find them — even in Kyoto.
Chef Kurogi doesn't leave anything to chance when it comes to sourcing his takenoko. He has bought his own land in Kyoto, with its dedicated bamboo forest, where the shoots have been dug for generations.
Spring is here.