Today’s post is a bonus, coming a day early to celebrate America’s National Clam Chowder Day.
Seriously, next time someone gives you shit about how Americans have no indigenous culture/cuisine? Clam chowder. It was the canny adaptation of a centuries-old French and English communal dish (something akin to cioppino) to the bountiful shellfish fisheries of the Atlantic seaboard. The only proper chowder, white and creamy, is made with clams, potatoes, onions, sometimes a green vegetable like celery, and milk.* It’s garnished with oyster crackers, the modern descendant of the ship’s hardtack used to thicken the chowder (rather than flour) in the first place.
Where I’m from, Morro Bay, chowder is on literally every menu but Taco Bell’s. When I was growing up, soup options were Soup du Jour and Clam Chowder, and every restaurant has “the best clam chowder in town.” My first job, washing dishes, included “bottomless bowl of chowder” as an employment benefit. Can’t imagine why.
[picture of waterfront – “This may have something to do with it.”]
When I got to China, I discovered that not only did they not have clam chowder, nobody had ever heard of it. Not even the other gwailo. Being as how fish and shellfish were freely available fresh (as in, ‘alive’) in the wet markets and I was in desperate need of American food, I turned to my friend Old Scrote (who’s taught me so much) and adapted his recipe. Here, then, is my recipe for Chinese clam chowder.
First, go down to the wet market and argue with the fishwife in Cantonese.
Mind the blood groove in the floor, you do not want to fall in that shit. You’ll want a bunch of clams, mussels or oysters, and maybe a fish if you can get her to kill it and throw it in for less than ten kuai extra. Because of my terminal lack of fucks to give and usually dodgy employment situation, I didn’t ever have them shucked but just tossed them into the chowder, shells and all.
Go over to the vegetable ladies and pick up onions, potatoes, and celery. Everything I ever cook is ‘one quarter onion per person per meal,’ and you’ll want double that amount in potatoes and two celery ribs for each onion.
Head to the grocery store for the bacon and milk. Only use milk that you can make cheese with by boiling, adding salt and vinegar, and straining. If the milk doesn’t make cheese, it shouldn’t go in your body.
When you get home, chop the celery up into half-inch lengths and the potatoes into thin slices. As Old Scrote instructs, “Chop the bacon pieces very finely and fry them in a little oil. Chop the onion and soften it with the bacon.” Where we diverge is the next step – toss the clams in, liquid and all, adding water if necessary, then cover the cooking pot. Don’t turn it up too high – you want the liquid to simmer but not boil. It shouldn’t take but a few minutes, five or ten at the most. Remove the clams and set them aside, tossing out any that refused to open. You do not want to eat them.
The rest of the recipe proceeds like Scrote – throw in the potato slices, turn up the heat, and boil them. After about ten or fifteen minutes, toss the celery in, too. Add the milk after twenty minutes, then wait for the potatoes to crumble into flour and thicken the soup up. Add the clams back in and season with plenty of salt and pepper to taste.
Serve with Tsingtao beer and a side of homemade sourdough. Feed yourself and your two insane roommates and whatever friends/lovers come streaming through the house for a week or so.
Happy National Clam Chowder Day.
*I had heard legends of this ‘red’ chowder, mostly from a throwaway gag in Ace Ventura, but I didn’t really believe it existed. Then, when I was 22, I was finally served some. It made me doubt the existence of a just and loving God.