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 scallop.

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).

[ Top ]