Clamming up the coast
Eat local: The hipster mentality has gone mainstream. In an age when cows are pumped full of hormones and there’s a list of “ingredients” on a packet of chicken, it’s nice to be in control of one thing that goes into my body. Familiarity with a local source is one way to achieve this. Lessening our environmental impact is another rationale for finding a local supply. It’s aided by the guilt of a coal-dependent conscience. Or, in my case, the sunburns attributed to a thinning of the ozone. They aren’t doing a thing for my youthful complexion.
Something’s got to give. As a step towards reducing our carbon footprint, we can take responsibility for the resources expelled to bring us the dinner du jour. Hunt and gather. You go straight to the source, the only by-product is sweat, and thrill doesn’t have a market value. We all have an inner Rambo, and it’s time to let it out. You must be open to shellfish, however, because in this case you’ll be rewarded with clams, not a lifetime supply of sequels.
On the trail of salty satisfaction, first let’s look down south. Off the coast of North Jeolla Province, there’s a cluster of islands that lie in the Yellow Sea. About 20 kilometers off the coast, the most prominent is Seonyu Island. It’s accessed by ferry from Gunsan. I was lured there last June with friends under the pretense of a sea-parting. When we arrived, Moses had left the building and we learned “parting” was a broad term for watching the tides recede.
Regardless, we were able to dig for clams. With the sun just moving behind an opposing island, the scene was picturesque. As the sea shrank away, young and old gathered in its glistening shadow. Under a setting sun, many moons rose up from the shore.
All were hunched over, intently searching, hindquarters saluting the sky. Anxious for the assault, we were quickly briefed in the art of excavation. On the agenda: a swift operation to take down razor clams. Necessities: shovel, salt and cat-like reflexes. What I could have done without: intense fear of worm-like creatures.
The method was to first seek out the air holes. When a suspect was identified, we used the shovel to dig down a couple of inches, keeping an eye on the hole. Then it was time to bait. A liberal sprinkling of salt was enough to lure out the prey. The quick-wristed stood at attention, ready for a hasty snatch. Without warning, the slimy little sucker would poke its head out. Strike with swiftness, and you’d behold a pulsating friend. One step closer to a clam bake!
That night, we cooked our catch up seaside on a roaring bonfire. Soft and briny, the clams paired splendidly with s’mores. Perfect end to a perfect island day.
This year, I’m looking closer to home to satisfy my salt-tooth. I’d heard rumors of clam-diving along the northeastern coast and I wanted to check it out. A friend, Augustine Contrera, is quickly emerging as Monsieur Connoisseur on the local clamming circuit.
I commissioned him with sweet-and-sour pork, and he let me follow along on an expedition. A loyal fan of Mythbusters, it’s no surprise he’s broken it down to a science. A stand-up paddleboard to reach the dive site, weights to anchor the board, paddle, goggles and something to secure the catch. The list may seem intimidating, but there’s a minimalist approach as well. The most important item is the receptacle.
Since the magic happens out at sea, it’s necessary to have some way to hold on to your clams. Augustine, finding his inner engineer, saw opportunity in an empty onion sack. Some right-brained friends saw it in their swim tops. Being resourceful, they filled their busts up ‘til they were bursting at the seams. Stuffing your bra with socks is so last season. Hands free, the clams were tightly secured until once again ashore. Off Anmok beach in Gangneung, Augustine paddled out to sea. About 5 meters off the shore, he set the anchor.
Time and time again, he’d dive down to the ocean floor, ruffle up the settled sand, and find just what he was looking for. Clams tend to grow in patches, so if you’re on to one, it’s likely you’ve found a whole feast.
The clams around Gangneung differ from Seonyudo’s and are closer in resemblance to a short neck. Delicate and tasty, they’re as fresh as it gets and perfect steamed right in the shell. We settled in and cooked them up on the beach. I’d planned ahead and sautéed up a little flavor base. Samgyeopsal, onions and tomatoes melded together on the grill with wine, butter and the essence of the sea. With our conscience cleared and our bellies full, taking on the next global initiative would have to wait ‘til morning.
Recipe for beach clams
57 grams butter (1/2 stick standard size or 1/8 stick Korean size), softened to room temperature
2 cloves garlic, pressed or finely minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon rind
100 grams samgyeopsal (sliced pork belly), diced
1/2 medium onion, diced
200 grams cherry tomatoes, quartered
½ kilogram short neck clams (or any available variety), scrubbed and soaked in fresh water for at least 1 hour
6 ounces dry white wine
1 baguette, sliced
1 lemon, halved
1. In a bowl, combine butter with garlic, parsley and lemon rind. Set aside.
2. Heat a medium-sized skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add samgyeopsal. Cook four to five minutes, stirring frequently, or just until beginning to brown. Add onion. Sauté another three to five minutes. When onion is softened and turning golden, toss in tomatoes. Sauté just a minute, then remove from heat.
3. Transfer mixture to the bottom of a grill-safe pan. Pile in the clams. Top off with white wine and 3/4 of the butter mixture. Cover securely, and place on grill over hot coals. (Could also be done on the stove top)
4. Steam until all clams are opened, about 10 to 15 minutes depending on the heat.
5. While clams steam, spread reserved butter mixture on baguette slices. Toast on grill, about 1 minute per side.
6. Remove clams from heat. Finish with a squeeze of lemon juice and serve with grilled baguette.