Travel Features > The Gastronome's Guide To Kuching
The Bamboo Clam
Good Looks Aren't Everything
The Bamboo Clam has a host of different nicknames, and a taste
and texture to die for.
Mike Reed packs his chopsticks and investigates.
Imagine a bowl full of fat, glistening, juicy white worms scattered
amongst a heap of rusted razor blades. Sounds wonderful, doesn't
it. But don't let first impressions put you off. In fact you're
looking at ambal, one of Sarawak's finest seafood delicacies.
Ambal is the local Malay name for the bamboo clam, also known
by a variety on nicknames, including sea needle and even (rather
imaginatively) monyet punya, a coy reference to the male monkey's pride and joy.
The appearance of ambal, as described above, is not exactly confidence-inspiring. Freshly
steamed, these tubular molluscs expand in their reed-like shells
(hence the name bamboo clam) and burst them, leaving their bloated
little bodies arrayed amongst a bed of shell slivers and fragments.
But appearances can be very deceptive. In both taste and texture,
ambal is unique. A distant relative of the mussel, it has a delicate,
almost fish-like flavour and a texture closest to a slightly undercooked
This humble creature is found all over Southeast Asia, but is
at its best in Sarawak, where its preparation has been elevated
to an art form. Bamboo clams live in countless millions in the
mad-flats of the Sarawak River estuary, where they filter the
freshly deposited alluvial mud and sand for micro-nutrients like
most shellfish. Their long, tubular shells can be anything between
three and fifteen centimetres long, and they are able to stretch
their flexible bodies much further out of the shell to suck in
food particles. Sarawak's relative lack of industry (particularly
the kind of industry that dumps heavy metals into rivers), means
the local bamboo clams have a pristine environment in which to
thrive. It also means they are untainted and very safe to eat,
a claim that cannot always be made for shellfish in Asia.
Catching the bamboo clams is an art in itself, practised by women
and children from the villages of the Santubong peninsula. The
clams feed at high tide, and at low tide they burrow deep in the
sand and mud for shelter and to prevent dehydration. Of course,
one could simply dig them out, but shovelling wet sand is back-breaking
work, so the canny ladies of Santubong have devised a much better
technique. They identify a likely looking spot and squirt a little
lime juice down the holes left by the clams. The clams, disturbed
by the change in acidity of the water, slowly poke their bodies
out above the surface, where they are grabbed by the sharp-eyed
and quick-witted collectors and transferred into a bucket.
Most of the bamboo clams caught at Santubong end up in the seafood
restaurants of Kuching and Buntal. They are a very popular local
delicacy and there are two main methods of cooking them. The most
common, also found in West Malaysia, is to stir-fry them in curry
powder with a little ginger and garlic. The result is certainly
delicious but does not really do justice to the delicate flavour
and texture of ambal.
No, the finest way to cook ambal, the Sarawakian way, is to steam
it. This is an operation that must be carried out with great care,
because undercooked ambal is greasy, sinewy and totally unappetising,
whilst even slightly overcooked it becomes tough and rubbery.
The other ingredients have to be carefully matched to complement
the delicate flavour as well. Best results are obtained by stir-frying
garlic and large red chillies over a hot flame. The bamboo clams
are added (in their shells) along with finely chopped ginger and
a little lengkuas (lemon grass) and the whole mixture is doused liberally with Chinese
wine and steamed until the clams are just starting to get soft.
The result is pure perfection. The fat, glistening bamboo clams
fall easily from their shells, and even the most ham-fisted can
handle them easily with chopsticks. The fried herbs and spices
blend with the wine to produce a delicious, aromatic soup that
goes very well with plain steamed rice. The perfect accompaniment
is a plate of midin, crispy tips of wild jungle ferns fried with belacan (shrimp paste).
Most seafood restaurants in Kuching serve curried ambal, but not all know how to prepare the steamed version properly.
Those that do include See Good (Ban Hock Road, opposite Hua Kuok
Inn), Benson's Seafood (Behind Chan Chin Ann Road) and Ban Hok
Seafood (Ban Hock Road, opposite Grand Continental Hotel).