The World Bamboo Organization is an umbrella group that promotes, from both an environmental and economic perspective, the preservation, sustainability and use of bamboo and bamboo products around the world. Under its auspices, many events are held around the world to raise awareness about the importance of promoting bamboo as a more viable and sustainable alternative to current materials.
Bamboo Congresses have, since 1984, been held in different regions of the globe; and World Bamboo Day, first marked in 2009, is celebrated annually on the 18th of September. Other bamboo-related bodies, such as the International Network of Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR), campaign to encourage research into, and recognition of, bamboo as a resource worthy of investment. Reforestation efforts, in forests around the globe, are deemed crucial in the preservation of this misunderstood plant species – and the environment.
With unbridled industrialization escalating around the globe (in particular, among developing countries), macro-environmental concerns are, understandably, top priorities among bamboo pioneers, advocates and scientists. However, the use and application of bamboo – and its derivatives – has also benefitted the realms of personal health and wellbeing.
Take bamboo charcoal. It’s black, chalky, with a decidedly uninteresting profile. Though its environmental uses and health benefits are tremendous – the curative and wellness properties of this chalky substance, for the individual as well as our environment, have largely gone unnoticed.
As air and water pollution continues to pervade the environment and pose heightened risks to human health, socially-responsible companies, organizations, community groups and individuals are increasingly seeking out environmentally beneficial solutions. What could be better than answers easily found in nature?
Bamboo charcoal is one such solution. An easily sourced alternative to conventional charcoal sourced from quickly-depleting wood species, bamboo charcoal can be simply harvested and processed into different shapes and for wide-ranging purposes.
Bamboo charcoal is primarily sourced from China and Japan, two of the main charcoal manufacturing nations. The history of bamboo charcoal in China can be traced back to Chuzhou Fu Zhi, during the Ming dynasty of the late 15th century; and subsequently, in the Qing dynasty. China’s southern provinces provide up to 90 per cent of the world’s demand for the product – unsurprising in light of China’s ancient and extensive uses of bamboo.
Bamboo charcoal is made of bamboo plant parts (such as culms, branches, and roots) five years or older and burned inside an oven at temperatures over 800 up to 1200 °C. A process called pyrolizing converts the bamboo into a sort of porous material with electromagnetic shielding and infrared emitting capacity. Moreover, with tremendous absorption capabilities, bamboo charcoal benefits environmental protection by reducing pollutant residue.
Remnants of the processing include environmentally stable residues such as particle, sawdust and thread. These residues, known as bamboo briquette charcoal, are formed by a series of procedures following the production of items such as bamboo chopsticks, mats and toothpicks.
Traditional uses of bamboo charcoal, in China and Japan, include its use as cooking fuel or drying tea. Increasingly in other Asian countries, bamboo charcoal is used in daily life, for example when cooking rice, or laying charcoal particles under floorboards to adjust indoor humidity. Bamboo charcoal is gaining recognition in the world’s other regions – primarily where bamboo is an indigenous plant species, but also where sources are becoming more widely available (for example, in health stores or through online purchases).
Bamboo charcoal is nothing if not super-multifunctional: it purifies tap water; eliminates organic impurities and smells – by ionizing indoor spaces; preserves the odor and freshness of refrigerated produce; keeps your clothes and shoes (insoles included) dry and comfortable; and protects your TV, computer and other electronic devices from harmful radiation. It produces infrared rays, which create warmth, thereby promoting proper blood circulation, relaxation and renewal. Bamboo charcoal is a natural antibacterial and antifungal; and contains rich natural minerals such as potassium, magnesium, sodium and calcium.
Submerging bamboo charcoal in liquids provides a whole host of other beneficial outcomes: Bamboo charcoal in hot oil improves the taste and aroma of fried food – it cleans the oil as well. Slices of charcoal soaked in a pot of cooking rice will absorb chlorine, bad odor and toxic substance from the water. Lastly, how about a bamboo charcoal-filled bath? Its inherent minerals will melt into the bath, alkalize the water, smoothen skin, warm and soothe a sore body. What could be better?
Once you’re done cooking, cleaning, washing, treating your water, and you’ve had a bath, break the bamboo charcoal into pieces and scatter it on your garden or mix it into the soil. Your plants will thank you.
Another byproduct of the pyrolizing process that distills leaves into bamboo charcoal, is bamboo vinegar. This liquid contains 400 different chemical compounds and can be applied for many purposes including cosmetics, insecticides, deodorants, food processing, and agriculture. Adding bamboo vinegar (and charcoal) to the diets of fish or poultry may increase their growth rates, while decreasing fat and increasing meat content.
Takesumi (or garam buluh) natural sea salt from east Bali is roasted inside organic bamboo sections, sealed with natural clay and heated in a traditional earth kiln. Cooling takes between seven to 28 days. Originally developed in ancient times by Korean monks and doctors as a medicinal remedy, bamboo sea salt neutralizes acidity and naturally enhances the taste of food. It also acts as a strong anti-oxidant capable of effectively revitalizing body cells in a short time; and helps to improve general health.
In some of the world’s regions (and spas), silica is touted as the ultimate anti-aging super-food. Bamboo extract, the richest known source of silica – containing over 70% organic silica, several times more potent than horsetail silica – has for years been marketed as a natural method to prevent premature ageing and preserve the skin’s elasticity and youthful appearance. Its salutary properties include maintaining vascular and heart health; and supporting health of the nervous and glandular systems.
Notwithstanding its more contemporary applications, geared towards an aging population, the origins of bamboo silica employed for medicinal and health purposes are decidedly more humble.
Bamboo has been used as a medicine for centuries in China, India and Tibet. Although young shoots and leaves contain medicinal properties, the primary source of silica is the resin collected from the knots of the stems, called tabashir. It re-mineralizes the body, treats cartilage loss and helps repair broken bones. Most commonly used in traditional medicine to restore elasticity and suppleness to the body’s network of tissues, bamboo silica is variably used as an antispasmodic, aphrodisiac, astringent, stimulant and health tonic. Tabashir is also known to support the urinary tract, cure diarrhea and prevent hemorrhoids.
In the tradition of India’s Ayurvedic medicine, bamboo-sourced silica is known as banslochan – a nutritious sap extracted from the young female plant – and mainly used for curing organ-related diseases in the thorax, lungs and intestines; it is used also in the treatment of hormonal imbalances and degenerative diseases.
Bamboo leaf tea is also considered a herbal remedy high in silica and fiber.
In Indonesia, bamboo has been used in traditional cooking for centuries. Still in evidence today, bamboo occasionally appears on menus at some of the most popular tourist venues. For example, the renowned Bebek Tepi Sawah restaurant, on the outskirts of Ubud, serves a fish dish called Gurame Timbung. Gurame is a type of fish that’s very popular in Indonesian cuisine – cooked inside a bamboo tube. Waiters bring the heated tube to the table, and entertain guests while sliding the fish out of the tube and onto the plate.
The most edible parts of the plant are bamboo shoots; sprouts that spring out beside the bamboo plant. Bamboo shoots belong to the Bambusoideae subfamily of grass. They are consumed in many Asian countries: China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Nepal and India. The benefits of eating bamboo shoots are mentioned in ancient Chinese literature – perhaps the earliest written record of bamboo shoots in human history. Later writings, of the Ming dynasty (1368 AD to 1644 AD), also mention medicinal and other benefits of bamboo shoots.
Bamboo shoots are known for their nutritional properties and health benefits. They also boast a low caloric and sugar content; low fat and high source of fiber and protein; containing many vitamins and minerals. Little wonder that, in Japan, these plant sources are known as the King of Forest Vegetables.
Bamboo charcoal was baked into biscuits as early as the 19th century, as a tonic for patients with gastric problems. In its more contemporary iteration, ground bamboo (charcoal) is made into bread. It’s deemed by some to be packed with vegetable fiber and its taste can occasionally be, rather gravelly. If you haven’t yet eaten (or spotted) a loaf or bun of bamboo bread, brace yourself: it’s black. Occasionally charcoal-grey.
But a few time zones away, Burger King in Japan has been mixing powdered bamboo charcoal into its cheese (yes, it’s black!) for the Kuro Pearl and Kuro Ninja burgers (Kuro = black) – complete with black buns and black sauce (squid ink added to ketchup). Their beef burgers – including the newer Kuro Diamond – are also flavored with black pepper. As revolutionary as these gimmicky burgers sound, they were pre-dated by McDonald’s in China, when it released its “yin and yang” burgers, served on black buns.
Elsewhere, black bunned burgers appear on menus as Midnight or Black Widow burger. The black buns don’t mean the burger is well done, but the charcoal could help with bloating and flatulence.
If you have more of a sweet tooth, you might want to head over to Thailand or Malaysia, where charcoal doughnuts have been known to sell like hotcakes – with flavors like ‘Charcoal Jalapeño,’ ‘Charcoal Choco Chili’ and ‘Charcoal French Praline.’ Or, seek out one of these treats: Midnight Macaroons, Bamboo Oolong Tea Macaroons, Charcoal Pannacotta or bamboo charcoal love letters; sweetened eggrolls traditionally produced in Malaysia and gifted over Chinese New Year.
Within the contemporary culinary sphere, tradition often intersects with creative breakthroughs: Chefs, restaurant chains and food writers continue to push bamboo in new directions (beyond fast food), translating a mere blade of grass into unexpected (and, occasionally, surprising) concoctions. For example, a New York-based food writer and chef has drummed up a recipe for Bamboo Charcoal Challah Bread. With all these gastronomic bamboo-based delights to try out, you’ll be forgiven for forgetting that what you’re really eating is a burnt stalk of grass.
Because bamboo emits infrared rays, which stimulates warmth and promotes relaxation and blood circulation, its use has been increasing among massage therapists, healers and bodywork practitioners. Warmed bamboo tools of varying lengths and diameter are used to roll, knead and relax muscles with deep tissue techniques. Certification in bamboo massage is also available to seasoned practitioners.
One of the earliest initiators of bamboo massage was French-born massage therapist Nathalie Cecilia, who created Bamboo Fusion massage in the United States after experiencing spiked pain and fatigue in her hands and wrists during treatments. Bamboo eased her own discomfort, but also contributed to a greater sense of deep-tissue healing among her clients.
Some practitioners heat the bamboo sticks, and combine elements of shiatsu, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), Thai massage and Ayuveda into their techniques. Ernesto Ortiz developed an approach called Tian Di Bamboo Massage, incorporating the Chinese five-element principles of TCM into each massage. Bamboo (cho) sticks of different sizes are used as an extension of the therapist’s hands, enabling them to massage more deeply and effectively.
Organically-sourced natural fibers have become a clothing mainstay for eco-conscious individuals and families who shop. Bamboo fits the bill: its fabric is a natural textile made from the pulp of bamboo grass. Antimicrobial, anti-bacterial, odorless, chemical-free, hypo-allergenic, UV resistant, the texture of bamboo fabric mimics silk or soft cotton. It does not require any fertilizers or pesticides to grow quickly and strongly.
Ecosox, an American company, produces eco-friendly socks, with no pesticides, no dyes and no bleaches. These environmentally-friendly socks resulted from Ecosox’s owner discovery of Moso bamboo, and the viscose thread made from the plant’s pulp. These biodegradable socks retain the natural properties of bamboo; including odor and friction control; because of their extra padding and arch support, they prevent the formation of blisters.
There are hundreds of other bamboo-related products and processes that continue to benefit the wellbeing of humans and our environment: Natural skin and hair care products. Toilet paper, toothbrushes, coffee filters, baby diapers. Mattresses, pillows and car seats are being filled with bamboo charcoal for their health-improving benefits.
What about bullet-proof vests made of bamboo?! Stay tuned for more on unusual, high-tech and other applications of this gloriously ever-growing green grass.
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