Samui Wining & Dining
Let’s Get Clammy!

Clams - King of seafood and food of kings

 

2-3Koh Samui, a tropical island paradise. And that means fluffy clouds, palm-fringed beaches and all the sun you could dream of. But it also means seafood, with the freshest of the morning’s catch on a hundred menus every day. There are all the usual suspects. Forget the fish – that’s almost boring when prawns and crabs are ten-a-penny! And the giant king prawns are a good bet, too. Lobsters? Well, they’ll be fresh, but they won’t have just come off the boat because there aren’t any around these parts, and they have to be brought over from Phuket. At which point things get a bit grey. Because, when it comes to oysters, scallops and clams, if you’re eating them on Samui then there’s a good chance they’re not caught locally.

    One of the problems is that, with the sharp rise in Thai tourism over the last two decades, plus the blossoming export market, the seas around Thailand have been steadily over-fished. Dollar-earning seafood has been pulled out of the sea far faster than it can reproduce, exploited by destructive trawling and bottom-dragging methods. In fact giant clams are now endangered the world over. Prawns and oysters are comparatively easy to cultivate and farm, but clams require more loving care, taking the best part of three years before they are large enough for the table. When you realise that you have to double this period for a lobster, then you’ll understand why 90% of the marine farms in Thailand focus on prawns – you can begin harvesting them in around six months.

      However it’s not the giant variety of clams that tends to end up on the table – in fact it’s rare to come across them larger than about 6cm in diameter. There are over 2000 different kinds of clams, but only two main groups, soft-shelled and hard-shelled. This seems fairly straightforward, but soft-shelled doesn’t mean soft in the sense of yielding to the touch, like it does with a soft-shelled crab. Rather, it refers to clams with shells that are thinner, more brittle and more easily broken. These are often referred to as ‘freshwater’ clams, as they are found in areas of low salinity, such as muddy tidal flats or estuaries. But true freshwater clams are found in streams and lakes (close to the outlet or inlet source, as they need a flow of water to survive). And that’s another reason why Thailand doesn’t farm them commercially; there are few rivers or lakes here.

       Like most seafood, clams are really-good-for-you. They are a storehouse for many of the essential nutrients required by the body, especially phosphorus, potassium, protein, vitamin A and iron. In addition, they’re low, low, low in fat (virtually zero) thus making them ideal for anyone who’s in any way health conscious. With only two grams of fat (and little more than 100 calories per 100 gms) eating clams is a great way to both satisfy your hunger and boost energy. And this fat is the omega-3 family of fatty acids; the beneficial kind of fat which our body needs. And even though clams contain cholesterol, the amount is too minute to matter.

      There are a few additional benefits, too. The trace chromium they contain is essential for regulation of your blood-cholesterol levels, which can help protect the health of your heart. Getting plenty of chromium will also help you boost your metabolism and convert body fat into muscle. Clams also supply some potassium and magnesium, two nutrients important for muscle and heart health. And a liberal serving of clams provides zinc and copper, which are also beneficial for your skin.

      Unlike oysters, clams shouldn’t be eaten raw. Although you’re not supposed to actually chew oysters (rather you allow them to slip down your throat), if you defer to a moment’s mastication you’ll find them unpleasantly slick and rubbery. Well, most clams are rubbery too, at least to the extent that you’d expect squid to be. But then again, much of this depends on the sort of clams they are and the way that they’re cooked. There’s a difference in flavour and texture between the sea clams and their freshwater cousins. Some gourmets consider freshwater clams to be less robust. And certainly they have a less tangy taste, not having had to endure a lifetime of sitting in the sea. But this mellow flavour usually accompanies a less robust texture, too – meaning they’re not so chewy!

      One Samui chef who has researched and explored this subject is Stephen Dion. He was previously the personal chef to His Majesty the King of Jordan. At his restaurant, H Bistro at Hansar Samui (in Fisherman’s Village), he’s recently introduced into his five-star gourmet menu live, imported razor clams from a freshwater lake in Scotland. They’re huge – around 11 centimetres each. They contain little in the way of initial sand or debris, are carefully slow-cooked to retain their natural flavour, and presented with a risotto topped with butter and saffron. And that’s the way to prepare clams that are ready for royalty.

      Or you could go about it the more traditional way and knock out a chowder! This is basically clam stew, but traditionally thickened with crumbled-up ship’s biscuit. The origins stem back to the 17th century, in the fishing villages of Brittany and Cornwall, when this was a poor man’s dish, constantly over the fire and added-to each day. It emigrated south when America was being colonised, and eventually took root along the north-eastern coast and the heavily French-biased region of Louisiana. Today it’s become more refined, with the addition of a variety of fresh vegetables and herbs; cream and saltines replacing the old dry biscuits. Head for the New England coast, or down to New Orleans, where it’s more-usually fish-based and called ‘gumbo’.

      The flavoursOr don’t! Seeing that you’re here on Samui, make the most of it. We’re smothered in seafood, after all. And whether you feast on fish, sup on scallops or plough into prawns, this island is a healthy haven. But, if it’s clams you’re after, you might have to scout around. They’re harder to find – especially if you fancy them fit for a king!

 

Rob De Wet


 


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