May 25, 2009

Collecting and Cooking Giant Clams
Nuweiba, Egypt

During yesterday's walk I noticed a small group of local women who were taking advantage of the exceptionally low mid-day tide to walk about the coral shelf that comprises this shore's intertidal zone.

Intrigued, I approached (carefully dodging the plethora of massive urchins and large worm-like sea cucumbers) and noticed that they were harvesting mostly clams. The tide had receded enough to allow the group to meander about in the knee-deep water, filling their sacks with sea life.

The coral shelf's shallowness was made possible by last night's new moon (a totally darkened moon—the opposite of a full moon). Even we noticed the abrupt change in tidal behavior compared with our arrival a few days prior.

Every 14 days, when the moon and sun are lined up with each other, their gravitational forces combine to produce a maximum pull on Earth. It's during these new or full moons that we see low tides that are exceptionally low and high tides that are especially high. Seven days later, when the moon and sun are at right angles to each other, the two forces act in opposition to each other to produce a minimum pull on the oceans (resulting in diminutive tidal shifts).

Joining the Hunt

I love to imagine a lifestyle where my family and I find ourselves living on an island somewhere, generally secluded unto ourselves, where the sea offers up both pleasure and sustenance. In this place we're all deeply tanned and I'm regularly pulling out our meals from the ocean. (Of course, in this vision there's internet access in our modest concrete home, as well as a motorbike or an old army Jeep with no roof.)

Here in Nuweiba it's been easy to blend some of this fantasy with reality, and upon seeing the women gathering from the sea yesterday I decided to have some fun myself. Getting some great sun combined with an interesting activity that resulted in dinner? This was not to be passed up.

I grabbed a worn cooking knife from Green Beach's kitchen and a large and empty plastic jug for water and strolled down to the shoreline at mid-day.

In the distance I could already see a trio of full-cloaked women hunting for clams in the shallows.

I took the knife and made a hearty incision near the top of the container, large enough to shove a clam through. This setup allowed me to carry the clams (and some saltwater to keep them fresh) by the handle of the jug.

I also brought with me a walking stick I'd previously collected to help give me some stability, as the area was full of urchins and sharp coral (and I'd awkwardly be wearing my flip-flops to protect my feet). Also using the buoyancy of the container combined with sliding the stick through the handle would be a good way to anchor the container down while I worked on retrieving a clam.

Ah, yes. The retrieval… this turned out to be no easy task. I quickly discovered that these clams were as quick and stubborn as they were stunningly beautiful.

Even though clams have no eyes they easily detect changes in light and shadow, as well as pickup on disturbances in the water. Any sudden movement in its vicinity and the calm would shut tight and hold on to the rock or (usually dead) coral for dear life.

You'd think that a grown man would be capable of just twisting one of these things off, but I'm here to tell you that such things are damn near impossible, regardless the size. Making matters worse are the sharp ridges on the clam which prevent you from grabbing it firmly, least you slice your fingers up… which I did plenty of this day.

My Sliced Fingers

Adding to the difficulty was the terrible glare from the sun which made detecting an already hard to find creature even harder. You really need an eagle-eye to notice the quick flash of metallic-blue as you carefully move about.

The clams are almost as well concealed are they are adamant about remaining affixed to their location. As this area is likely harvested by local women every month or so, the ones remaining and growing to a decent size are well camouflaged or surrounded by a bed massive urchins (an excellent deterrent).

Eventually I started using my walking stick (which had a tapered end) to violently jab at the base of the clam to leverage it off. Unfortunately, this only had a chance of succeeding if the clam's jaws were open and it suspected nothing. If it was sealed up then even working at its base with the knife for 10+ minutes could prove unsuccessful. I nearly cracked my walking stick in half trying to pry one off.

It was quite the experience.

Giant Clam for Dinner

Some Internet sleuthing afterwards lead me to believe the species we'd be enjoying for dinner was the giant clam (Tridacna gigas).

Nasser al-Din smiled at the collection of clams (there were 21 of them), and was more than happy to help prepare them for us.

Giant Clam Dorsal Hinge and Byssal Opening

Since all the clams were still alive the first step was to boil them, releasing the adductor muscle, which works in opposition to the hinge ligament to keep the shell closed. (Note: In the US when you eat a scallop it's the adductor muscle you're eating.)

Giant Clams Cooking in Pot of Boiling Water

Nasser then went at it, cleaning out the clams and removing the most edible bits. Alas, each clam doesn't yield very much in the way of meat.

Nasser al-Din Working on the Clams

Clam Meat

Nasser al-Din Cleaning Clams (while the kitty observes with greedy interest)

Boiled Giant Clams with Innards Removed

Then Tatiana turned the meat into a kind of stew, which we eventually combined with rice and hot sauce.

Pretty tasty.

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