Water bamboo is a vegetable I've eaten many times at Chinese restaurants, but since I had no idea what the fresh plant looked like, it took me a while to recognise it in wet markets. It's particularly popular in restaurants that specialise in vegetarian cuisine, because the water bamboo's dense texture and sweet flavour are very satisfying.
Despite its name, water bamboo (also known as Manchurian wild rice) is different from the plant favoured by pandas, although they are related. According to a paper published by the horticultural department of Purdue University, in the United States, water bamboo is also related to wild rice, but a fungal infestation stops the formation of grains and causes the stems of the plant to swell. This doesn't sound appetising, but it really is a delicious vegetable. Because of the fungus, importation of water bamboo to the US is banned, to stop it infesting rice crops.
Water bamboo, which is popular in Taiwan and parts of the mainland, is usually sold in bundles with the husk removed. Look for shoots that are firm and glossy. I've read that it can be eaten raw, although this isn't advisable because one can never be sure if the water it was grown in was clean.
To prepare it, remove and discard the husk (if it's intact). Cut the water bamboo into pieces, then stir-fry it over a high heat with oil and a sprinkling of salt; this allows the sweet flavour of the vegetable to shine. For a slightly more complicated dish, season it with a little soy sauce, or oyster sauce, and a few drops of sesame oil; add other vegetables, such as pea pods or sugar peas, fresh Chinese mushrooms, and/or red or yellow bell pepper strips; or add sliced pork or chicken that's been marinated with soy sauce, rice wine, a little sugar and cornstarch.