Known as lalah in Bahasa Malaysia, clams have found their way onto the menus of almost all Chinese hawkers in Kuala Lumpur. These little gems from the ocean are cooked in spices in Malaysia: very unlike most European cuisines where clams are given a fine dining status by cooking them with herbs and white wine. Here, clams are cooked with chillies, spices and mostly a pungent shrimp paste and presented to be eaten with your hands. Chunks of chillies and onions are scooped with the clam shell and eaten together with the clam. It is simply delightful; it needs no accompaniment, just use your bare hands to enjoy the lalah dishes to the fullest. One evening, as we were chowing down our manna on Kuala Lumpur’s famous food street, Jalan Alor, I was hit by a strong smell of chillies and shrimp. As the waiter walked past me, I saw baby clams covered in a red paste and sprinkled with curry leaves. Luckily, it was placed on the table next to ours, so I did not have to strain my senses too much for them to be satiated. The aromas were enough to tempt me to order a portion but my idea was shot down by my husband who has an aversion to overly fishy smells. And since I was too full on my own I decided against gluttony.
The fishy smell comes from the shrimp paste that is used in cooking these clams. Very popular in Malaysian cooking, Sambal Belacan is a condiment made from toasted shrimp paste, chillies, sugar and kalamansi lime. The sugar and lime helps to cut down the spices, hence the result is a sweet and sour paste with a strong shrimp fragrance. Since I could not use sambal belacan at home, I decided to substitute it with a vegetarian sambal. It has a milder taste due to the omission of the shrimp paste, hence it had to be enhanced by some more chili while cooking. These clams could not be made without the addition of dried shrimp, hence in order to disguise its strong flavors, I cooked the dried shrimp with the oil and onions to cut down on its pungent aroma. The experiment was a success; he ate the clams without realizing there were dried shrimps in it.
- 500g clams
- 1 small onion
- 3 red chillies
- 1/4 cup dried shrimp
- 8 curry leaves
- Juice of 1 lime
- 1/4 cup water
- 3 tbsp vegetable sambal
- 1 tbsp chili paste
- 2 tbsp oil
- Wash the clams thoroughly to get rid of any grit on the shells
- Add a tsp of salt to a pot of water and soak the clams for at least half an hour
- Meanwhile, dice the onions and chop the red chillies to be sauteed
- In a wok, add 2 tbsp of oil and toss in the diced onion, chillies, curry leaves and dried shrimp
- While stirring, cook for about 5 minutes till fragrant. Make sure the onions do not brown
- Add the vegetarian sambal and chili paste. Mix well and cook for about 2 minutes, till infused with the rest of the ingredients
- Drain the clams and place them into the pan along with the lime juice and water.
- Mix well till the clams are completely coated
- Cover and let it cook for about 5-7 minutes till the clams have opened and the water has dried up
- The mixture around the clams should be chunky rather than saucy
- Garnish with curry leaves and serve hot
In the past two weeks I have made this dish twice while entertaining guests, each time it tastes better than the last. In fact, I even enjoyed eating the leftovers cold the day after. The beautiful shades of crimson are in stark contrast with the green curry leaf garnish, which makes it a sight for sore eyes and definitely source of happiness for the hungry palate. Aside from the time taken to soak the clams, this recipe can be completed in no time, hence it is always best to cook it right before serving. Through the use of the sambal, this dish achieves a balance between sweet, sour and spicy flavors. It is a delicious yet different way to enjoy clams.