Imagine traveling through the bush without a need for cooking utensils of any kind. In many parts of Asia, around the Pacific Rim and in other places where bamboo grows or has naturalized, it is possible to cook almost all meals using sections of bamboo.

Bamboo is the world’s largest grass and an amazingly versatile resource that has been put to many uses for millennia. Bamboo has a tensile strength as strong as steel, is fast-growing, sustainable and has been used for scaffolding, building material, bicycle frames, food, weapons, traps, containers, cooking utensils and much, much more.

About 10 years ago, I was reintroduced to bamboo technology by Steve Watts, director of the Aboriginal Studies program at the Schiele Museum of Natural History. A weekend immersion class was conducted by Watts and John Lathem. Lathem had spent considerable time with the Pohnpeians of the Caroline Islands and became an important teacher to me. Another mentor was Mel DeWeese, a former military survival instructor who has worked with the Aboriginal people of the Philippines for decades. Because of these experiences and many others over the years, I have done scientific research and have completed several large projects related to cooking in bamboo.

A word of caution is in order, however. The uncooked shoots of certain bamboo plants are poisonous. I know of no studies that address the toxicity of the wood itself. The wood may or may not contain the same compounds. The good news is that the cyanogenic glycoside in bamboo, taxiphyllin, degrades in boiling water. Individual species of bamboo are notoriously difficult to identify. If you have any doubts, use an inexpensive cyanide kit and test the bamboo you will be using. I have been cooking in Phyllostachys bamboo for years without a problem, but it pays to play it safe.

Bam! Let’s Get Started

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An Aboriginal-style cooker as used in the Philippines, ready to be loaded. Small cracks above the waterline created during manufacture are usually not a problem.

The biggest challenge in bamboo cooking is to find a grove containing plants of suitable size. Pieces with inside diameters of 1.75 inches or larger are the best. At least three native species grow in North America, but none reach a sufficient diameter suitable for cooking. The Phyllostachys genus of bamboo introduced from Asia is the variety most often encountered in my area, as well as in many other parts of the southeastern United States.

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Bamboo can be cut with large knives, machetes or fine-toothed saws, such as Japanese woodworking saws or hacksaws. Ideally, most of the cookers in this article can be made with just a machete, cane knife or bolo made of thin stock. Thicker-walled bamboos can crack when hit with machetes, so care must be taken when they are used, although fine cracks above the waterline won’t matter that much. When inside partitions need to be modified, a simple sharp stick serves the purpose.

There are many different ways to cook in bamboo. In general, as long as the container has water in it, it will not burn through below the waterline. However, if it boils dry, or if strong heat is applied to the cooker where water is not present inside, it could burn through and ruin the food within. Only green, fresh-cut bamboo should be used for cooking vessels. This will help prevent burn-through. Pieces can be cut and used for up to two weeks if stored in the shade.

Bamboo Need-To-Knows

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Bamboo cookers, a roaster and cups, ready for use.

Before proceeding, there are a couple of terms that are handy to know. Nodes are the bumps (often called joints) on the outside of the bamboo. On the inside, there are air and watertight partitions in these locations. Internodes are the spaces between the nodes. When cutting cookers to length with machetes or bolos, leave plenty of room between the nodes that you want to remain intact and the places you are cutting so that you don’t create cracks that will leak.

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Use common sense. Do not pick up hot bamboo without something to protect your hands. Never completely close up a piece of bamboo that will be cooked in. The steam will always need some way to escape. Otherwise, the cooker could explode. Use caution when handling split bamboo. Its edges are very sharp.

Cooking in bamboo works because bamboo burns at a higher temperature than that at which water boils. Once water boils, it can’t get any hotter, so the bamboo doesn’t burn through as long as there is liquid inside conducting the heat away from it. If heat or flame is applied to the container above the waterline however, it will scorch and eventually burn, so take care not to leave your work unattended.

Cookers & Cooking

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A boiler (front) and steamer (rear) in use by the fire.

Improvised bamboo cookers may be made in many forms with specific purposes in mind. The simplest is a section of bamboo consisting of one or more sections with the bottom joint left intact. This may serve as an elongated pot for boiling water to make it potable, or as a simple cooking vessel for a small single-pot meal. The bottom below the joint can be cut to create a point so that the bottom of the container can be secured in the ground at the edge of the fire, eliminating the need for it to be leaned against something. Other vertical cookers have handles. On these, the top joint is left intact so the size of the opening can be determined during manufacture. A banana leaf lid may be used.

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Rice-based meals may be cooked purely by steam. A section of bamboo can be cut and the last section inside left intact except for a small pencil-sized hole. Water is poured in and allowed to drain through the hole. The meal to be cooked is then placed into the tube and the top is stuffed with a banana leaf to help contain the steam. The cooker is propped on a forked stick so the portion containing water is directly above the flame. Cooking times vary.

A specialized cooker is used by the Aboriginal people of the Philippines. The clever and tightly fitted lid is created by making two machete cuts in a single internode about 5 inches apart that slant toward each other at the top, and away from each other at the bottom. The cuts are deep enough to reach the inside of the internode. Next, cracks are opened on each side between the cuts with a knife and the “lid” is pushed out from the side, or knocked out with the butt of the machete. The lid is so tight that it can be tricky to remove and replace. A bit of carving may be necessary to refit it. Food and liquid are loaded in, the lid is replaced and the tube is nestled (with the lid facing up) on hot coals for about 20 minutes.

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A rice dish rests in a handled cooker. To eat, just split off the top!

Soups and stews may be made in a long tube consisting of two or more internodes. The top is left open and all the partitions are punched out except the last one, leaving a long tube with a bottom. The ingredients are placed inside with liquid and the whole thing is propped diagonally over the fire. Stews have to cook longer than rice dishes, and liquid may have to be added during the cooking process.

The roasting of fish and other meats is possible using wide bamboo skewers to support the meat. Once skewered, the food is sandwiched between a partially split piece of bamboo or sapling secured at the top with bark or a withe. The opposite end is stuck deeply into the ground so that the meat is held securely over the fire. The roaster is turned occasionally.

Through With Bamboo?

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“Bamboo internodes can also be used for semi-permanent containers, such as canteens.”

In all bamboo cooking, at the completion of the meal, the remains of cookers, improvised tongs, chopsticks, skewers and leftovers can all be burned to ash in the cooking fire. Bamboo internodes can also be used for semi-permanent containers, such as canteens. A piece cut from a smaller section can serve as a lid. The Punan of Borneo use sections of giant bamboo as water buckets.

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The Aboriginal people of the Philippines sometimes carry food in cookers as well. Meals can be cooked and carried in the cookers and eaten early in the day, or non-perishable ingredients in appropriate amounts can be packed in the tubes. In either case, lids may be secured with string. Liquids and perishables, such as freshly caught shrimp, can be added later and cooking can occur on the spot.

The uses of this amazing plant and how you cook in it are only limited by your imagination. Almost any meal that can be cooked in a metal pot can be cooked in bamboo. If you live in bamboo country, be safe and take advantage of this wonderful, renewable resource. Try out your favor-ite recipes, and enjoy!


This article originally published in AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  2015-#192 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  magazine are available here    

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