Seashells by the seashore

China Daily European Weekly - - FRONT PAGE - By PAULINEDLOH paulined@chi­

It used to be a poor man’s feast, pick­ing at shell­fish that could be eas­ily for­aged from mud­flats, wet­lands or sandy beaches. And no one is bet­ter at mak­ing use of these cheap treats to make de­li­cious food than Chi­nese coastal com­mu­ni­ties.

Clams, cock­les, limpets, sand worms, fid­dler crabs are all grist to the mill. In fact, many of these off­main­stream seafood have be­come re­gional spe­cial­ties over time.

In Bei­hai, a coastal city of the Guangxi Zhuang Au­tonomous re­gion, they har­vest sand worms for food and fla­vor­ing. These 20-cm long tubu­lar fat pink worms hide in beaches and are dug up by an army of work­ers ev­ery day.

They are trans­ported to mar­ket, where ven­dors turn them in­side out to clean them. They are then sold to ea­ger con­sumers who will eat them in de­li­cious stir-fries or slowly boiled in thick rice con­gee.

Sand worms, sha­chong, are also dried. The re­sult­ing pen­cil-straight translu­cent tubes are not cheap, and they are used to sweeten soups and broths. An­other in­ter­est­ing method is to salt-roast the dried worms, turn­ing them into crispy, sa­vory snacks that make ex­cel­lent beer food.

An­other un­usual “worm” that is a sig­na­ture snack is the tusun, or earth as­para­gus, of Xi­a­men and Quanzhou in Fu­jian. Like the Bei­hai sand worms, it is a rel­a­tive of both the soft coral and the sea anemone.

Un­like the sand worm, how­ever, it is more gelati­nous and is cooked down into a clear jelly and served as a chilled cake with chili sauce and plenty of ci­lantro.

Noth­ing is wasted, and the coastal folks use ev­ery­thing at their dis­posal.

Back in Bei­hai, tiny fid­dler crabs are har­vested at night and pounded with salt to make a fer­mented pre­serve, to be served with the re­gion’s fa­mous white-cooked chicken. That turns an oth­er­wise ined­i­ble re­source into a trea­sured del­i­cacy.

Fur­ther along the coast, atChaoshan in Guang­dong prov­ince, lit­tle oys­ters that col­o­nize rocky out­crops near shore are chipped off fresh ev­ery day.

They are washed clean of shell frag­ments be­fore be­ing used in the most fa­mous street food here — oys­ter omelets.

The Chaoshan peo­ple also like oys­ter con­gee, a soupy rice por­ridge with lots of lit­tle oys­ters added, and sea­soned with salty pick­led veg­eta­bles, pep­per and ci­lantro.

Un­like peo­ple in many West­ern coun­tries, the Chi­nese pre­fer their oys­ters well-cooked, in­clud­ing big­ger ones that are now widely farmed from Zhe­jiang right up to Liaon­ing.

The most com­mon method is to steam them, with gar­lic, gin­ger or scal­lions. Some­times, rice or bean ver­mi­celli is placed in the shell to soak up the juices.

In China’s south­ern coastal prov­inces, you can en­joy all man­ner of shell­fish, in­clud­ing a rather gory-sound­ing del­i­cacy, the blood cockle or xue­han.

This is a rel­a­tively small cockle, com­pared with the larger “hairy” cockle or

mao­han found in north­ern wa­ters. They have a salty liqueur in them that looks like blood, hence the name.

These cock­les are found in the delta mud­flats where fresh­wa­ter meets the sea, and they are har­vested with rakes that turn them up from their hid­ing places.

Oncethe­mud­is­washe­d­off, the grey and white ridged shells are ex­posed. Some­times, they are sim­ply blanched with­boil­ing­wa­terandthe­neat­en­with a gar­licky dip of soy and chili.

They can also be shelled, and then fried with thick rice noo­dles, bean sprouts, Chi­nese sausages and egg — an­other pop­u­lar street food served wher­ever the Chaoshan em­i­grant has set­tled.

The man­tis praw­nis not a shell­fish, although it is just as much a chal­lenge get­ting past its prickly cara­pace. It is more shell than meat, but the prawn is very sweet, and in sea­son, the roe runs right through the whole crus­tacean.

Man­tis prawns used to be very af­ford­able, a fish­ing byprod­uct sold at farm­ers’ mar­kets to the hoi pol­loi. With declining ma­rine re­sources, how­ever, their value has sky­rock­eted.

They are now served in restau­rants, steamed or boiled, but they can also be fried in plenty of gar­lic, gin­ger and spring onions as well.

On a re­cent trip to Tang­shan, we were treated to a meal fea­tur­ing xiao

haix­ian, “lit­tle seafood”. Plat­ters of hairy cock­les, conch, ra­zor clams, yel­low clams and man­tis prawns­filled the ta­ble. There were no lob­sters, abalones or other lux­ury seafood, butween­joyed the fresh­ness of the shell­fish just as much, if not more so.

The cock­les were blanched and served with a soy sauce spiked with wasabi. But it was the conch that cap­tured my at­ten­tion and my taste buds.

They were cooked just right, and then served on a lit­tle hill of shaved ice. You used a cock­tail stick to skewer the meat through the open­ing of the mol­lusk and then gen­tly twisted the flesh out.

Un­like whelks and snails, these conch re­pro­duce by spawn­ing and so have no ba­bies in­side their in­nards, and you don’t get that un­com­fort­able crunch when bit­ing into them.

Ra­zor clams are har­vested all over China’s coastal re­gions, and nor­mally range in size from 3 to 6 cm. In Guangzhou’s Huang­sha whole­sale seafood mar­ket, restau­rant own­ers and chefs go shop­ping for ex­tra-large ra­zor clams that are as long as a grown­man’s palm. These are sold at a hefty pre­mium.

More com­mon are clams the size of a lit­tle fin­ger, and they are sim­ply fried with plenty of gin­ger or scal­lions, or steamed with a blan­ket of gar­lic.

The shells are very thin and eas­ily chipped, but the flesh in­side is al­most sugar sweet, and ten­der.

Clam va­ri­eties are­myr­iad, rang­ing from large plump yel­low clams that are steamed or salt-roasted to tiny ones the size of a baby’s fin­ger­nail that are mostly pick­led.

In our na­tive Shunde in Guang­dong, we have a clam mus­tard — xi­an­jie — made by pick­ling shucked clams in salt and Chi­nese wine. The re­sult is an aro­matic sauce that is used for mar­i­nat­ing chicken or pork be­fore steam­ing, or just as a dip on the din­ner ta­ble.

Yel­low clams, white clams, con­cu­bine clams, flower clams and fin­ger-nail clams are just a few of the va­ri­eties sold in Chi­nese mar­kets. More ex­otic seafood of­fer­ings may in­clude sea ap­ples, anemones and even starfish. Even some nudi­branches, called sea bun­nies, are edi­ble.

Chi­nese cooks are imag­i­na­tive, and bold enough to ven­ture where many others fear to tread, so no in­gre­di­ent is too strange to ex­per­i­ment with, as far as they are con­cerned.

From left: Cock­les, to be eaten with a wasabi soy sauce; man­tis prawns, sim­ply steamed, but full of roe in the right sea­son; steamed oys­ters with a blan­ket of golden gar­lic.


Chilled cooked conch on a hill of shaved ice.

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