Bamboo shoots (竹笋尖, zhú sǔn jiān) are the tender edible shoots that sprout out from the ground when bamboo is just starting to grow. Bamboo is actually a grass and there are over 1500 species but not all have edible shoots. I learned this the hard way the first time I came back from China and wanted to cook Chinese food for my family. I went in the backyard and pulled some of the bamboo plants growing next to the shed and brought some back in the kitchen. I was rinsing them in the sink when my dad (a biology major and botanist wannabe) said something like, "doesn't bamboo contain cyanide? Are you trying to kill us?" I did some research and found out that my dad was right. Most varieties have low levels of cyanide in them. The cyanide can be removed by boiling the shoots to leech the poison out, but I don't recommend it. What if it didn't?
Edible bamboo shoots vary in size from large foot-long shoots to tiny slender shoots. They have a sweet and sour taste similar to artichoke hearts. You can find the sliced versions canned at most western supermarkets and whole shoots (canned and fresh) can be found at asian grocery stores. They taste great in salads or thrown in a stir-fry for extra fiber and potassium. I have yet to see bamboo shoots catch on as an ingredient in Western food dishes... but they should. You can however find bamboo bed sheets and bed bath and beyond and other similar stores in the states. Mary Kate loves them, they're too soft for me. In China, bamboo is also fashioned into chopsticks, food, furniture, water pipes, helmets, music instruments, paper, and the list goes on and on.
On a side note, I recently saw the new movie District 9 and I was struck by how much the aliens' facial tentacles resembled slender bamboo shoots. I did some field research and have concluded that Peter Jackson got his inspiration for the Aliens from canned bamboo shoots. See my findings HERE.
Here's a photo of canned bamboo shoots...