Bamboo thrusts dramatically out of the soil, clean, symmetrical, very sharp. The shoots grow fast, shooting over my head within a matter of days. Only once they have reached their final height, long slender swaying canes 25 feet tall, will they leaf out and send stiff woody side branches out from the nodes. They can grow so fast because all the structures of the full grown cane are already mostly present and developed inside the rebung. They only need to expand. Rebung is the term for the bamboo shoot, and it pops up in surprising places in Malaysia.

Sarong field
Stylized rebung in the kepala sarong.

Maybe for its power, maybe for its unique conical shape, rebung has been inspiring folk art for a very long time. The beautiful batik sarongs[0.5] worn by Malay women have two parts, the majority pattern or badan, and a contrasting band of a different pattern or color, the kepala. A very common pattern for the kepala is of two opposing rows of cones reminiscent of a backgammon board but which are in fact stylized rebung.

Rebung has been inspiring pantuns[1] too, like this one that is not afraid to ask the hard questions in life:

Dragging a shield while shaking in fear
Holding a telescope and flashlight too
How can Moustache be big brother to Beard
Why is Rebung’s kid sister Bamboo[2]]?

Bawa perisai terhinggut-hinggut
Bawa teropong sambil bersuluh
Kenapa misai abangkan janggut
Mengapa rebung adiknya buluh?

Umbut Nanas
Umbut Nanas – pineapple shoots

Rebung is edible. You might say rebung is a type of umbut[3] (although Malay grammarians may disagree). Umbut refers to the soft, tender growing shoots of basically any plant. In that early growing stage, the meristems of many plants are edible. Coconut is the most common. Maybe we could say it is the default umbut, but pineapple, gingery-type plants like lengkuas and tepus, even banana all have edible umbut, if you are hungry enough. Umbut of lengkuas and tepus is delicious in oxtail soup, or steamed and eaten with sambal. Banana umbut I found to be watery, fibrous and without flavor, a vegetable of desperation. Maybe I just haven’t had it cooked right yet. Pineapple umbut I have never tried, but there it is for sale in the market. Someone’s eating it.

Rebung cut in half
Rebung cut in half

Cutting away the outer scales of the rebung reveals all the nodes and other tiny plant parts waiting to enlarge. On the authority of my mother-in-law, after the rebung has been chopped, it should be soaked in salty water for a time. The light pickling gives it a slight yellowish cast, softens and removes some of the bitterness. Some only. Rebung is a bitter vegetable, and maybe for that reason it is often cooked in santan[4], whose creaminess can further take the edge off. On this occasion, she made rebung cooked in santan with summer squash, dried anchovies and turmeric leaf.

Rebung masak lemak
Rebung masak lemak

Leave them be to prepare rebung
where the awful tiny hairs reside[5]
Leave those who are boastful and proud
Disaster is only a step behind pride

Biarlah orang memasang rebung
rebung itu banyak miangnya
Biarlah orang berlagak sombong
Sombong itu banyak malangnya


0.5. Sarongs are more commonly known locally as kain batik for women and kain palikat for men. More on Malay garment technology previously.
1. Original malay pantuns courtesy of Malay Civilization.  Translations to English mine.

2. Bamboo comes from the Malay word bambu, but for some reason it is no longer commonly used here, having been replaced by buluh. Malay contributions to English previously.

3. Umbut kelapa previously.

4. Santan, or coconut milk, previously.

5. The base of the bamboo nodes has tiny fiberglass-like hairs that irritate the skin, called miang.  Miang buluh previously, in the context of harvesting coconuts.

Published by bingregory

Official organ of an American Muslim in Malaysian Borneo, featuring plants, pantuns and pictures from the Malay archipelago. Oversharing since 2002.

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