In the early 1990s, I received a fellowship to study at Chinese University in Hong Kong. That year of study helped me polish my language skill but more importantly, I got to eat my way through Hong Kong. My friends and I would go to the Kowloon night market and browse the stalls of overly padded bras and cheap knock-off goods before we settled on a few evening street snacks.
My all time favorite Hong Kong night market dish was clams in bean sauce. The small clams were as big as a quarter and thin shelled so there was a ton of them piled high on a plate. Hot from the wok, each order was unceremoniously plopped down on a flimsy table. My friends and I sat on stools and ate the clams with bamboo skewers, slurping all the sauce we could, scorching our tongues as we worked our way to the bottom of the plate. It cost roughly $2 an order. Seriously.
I’ve been looking for a good recipe for that dish since then. Most U.S. Chinese restaurants offer clams in black bean sauce but frankly, the pungency of fermented black beans overwhelms the delicate clams. I did not realize the error of my ways until I tried Grace Young’s stir-fried clams with spicy bean sauce recipe from Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge.
It’s not fermented black beans that I was looking for, but rather ground bean sauce. Ground bean sauce is sold in jars at Chinese market, and though it is definitely salty, it is not as forceful and earthy as fermented black beans. Ground bean sauce plays well with other ingredients, falling into the background to add savory depth.
Regular whole salted soybeans, also sold at Chinese markets, function in the same way, though they are not as nuanced as ground bean sauce. I used salted soybeans as the jar was what I had in my pantry.
The result was terrific, full of ginger, garlic, a touch of fresh chile heat. The clams stood up well to the flavors and retained their individual characteristics. I was frankly, happy as a clam. The salty, spicy, savory sauce was great on rice too, just like Grace described in the recipe introduction.
Stir-Fried Clams with Spicy Bean Sauce
This stir-fried clams in bean sauce recipe is easy and fast to put together for a starter course or main dish. Small Littleneck clams, no wider than a ping-pong ball are good. Manila clams would be even better as they are closer to what you get in Asia. Remember to use low-sodium canned broth (Swanson’s is my favorite brand) or you’ll end up with a salt lick!
Serves 2 as a main dish with rice or 4 as part of a multicourse meal
1 1/2 pounds small littleneck clams or Manila clams
1/3 cup low-sodium chicken broth or water
1 tablespoon ground bean sauce or salted soybeans
1 teaspoon light (regular) soy sauce
2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil
1 tablespoon chopped shallot
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons minced ginger
1 Thai or Serrano chile, minced
1/4 cup chopped scallion, white and green parts
1. Submerge the clams in a bowl of water and then drain. Repeat several times to thoroughly wash them. Drain well, then pat them with paper towel.
2. In a small bowl, combine the chicken broth, soybeans (or bean sauce), and soy sauce. Set aside.
3. Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok in 12-inch skillet over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the oil, then add the shallot, garlic, and ginger. Stir-fry for 15 seconds, until fragrant.
Add the clams and stir-fry for 1 minute. Sprinkle on the chile and stir-fry for 30 seconds or until well combined. Swirl the broth mixture into the wok, cover, and cook for 4 minutes, stirring every minute.
Uncover and stir-fry for 1 minute, or until the shells are fully open. Transfer the opened clams to a shallow bowl. Continue stir-frying, uncovered, for 1 to 2 minutes, or until all the shells have opened and the broth mixture is reduced to a saucy consistency. Taste and add a pinch or two of sugar, if needed, to balance out the flavors. If the sauce is overly salty, splash in some water.
Discard any unopened clams. Add the scallions, stir until wilted, then pour the sauce over the clams. Serve immediately.
Recipe adapted from: Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge (Simon & Schuster, 2010) by Grace Young