PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 March, 2005, 12:00am

Pandas are not the only animals that like to eat the tender shoots of bamboo plants: they're often used in Asian cuisine. But don't try to harvest the shoots from your neighbour's decorative bamboo hedge, because not all varieties are edible.

The plant: Bamboo is versatile. In addition to being a source of food, bamboo is made into chopsticks, skewers, steamers, strainers and other kitchen utensils, woven into baskets and hats, used as scaffolding or to build shelters, made into ornamental garden fences, and is even strong enough to use as flooring.

Season: Fresh bamboo shoots are available year-round.

Varieties: Winter bamboo shoots are considered best and superior in flavour and texture to the spring variety, which are considered better than the summer shoots. Bamboo shoots are also sold in cans (they should be drained and rinsed), frozen (not common) and salted and dried.

How to choose: The fresh varieties are usually sold in their thick husks, although some vendors sell them already peeled and soaking in water. Look for firm husks with no soft spots. When it's time to use them, peel off the layers of husks until you reach the smooth, tender, pale shoot. If you buy them pre-peeled, look for shoots that are evenly coloured with no bruising. If you use canned bamboo shoots, buy them whole or in large pieces rather than chopped or cut in slices.

Storage: If you buy peeled fresh shoots, use them as soon as possible after purchase. Whole, unhusked shoots can be stored for several days in the fridge. Leftovers from an open can of bamboo shoots should be put into a bowl or glass or plastic container, covered with fresh water, stored in the fridge and used within a week. Salted and dried shoots, which have an unusual crunchy/chewy texture, can be stored in the pantry or fridge indefinitely.

What else? Fresh bamboo has more flavour than canned. Certain varieties of the shoots are toxic when raw; to be safe, cook fresh bamboo shoots rather than using them raw. If you want to use fresh shoots in a salad, boil them in water for about 10 minutes. This is not necessary with canned shoots because the processing kills the toxin.

How to prepare? They add flavour and textural contrast to soups, steamed dishes and stir-fries (such as the lettuce wraps in the recipe column, left). They're also delicious in braised dishes because they absorb the flavours of the other ingredients.