Time to make the most of mussels
The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down many aspects of China’s social and economic life, with agriculture and aquaculture under significant influence when produce and catches can’t be sold in time.
The public have been lending a helping hand to farmers, purchasing fresh produce directly from the place of origin through e-commerce platforms, and one of the ways to help now is to eat mussels.
In Rizhao, Shandong Province, nearly 150 million tons of mussels were floating in the sea due to the novel coronavirus outbreak as nationwide transportation and logistics were almost stagnant. At one point the fast-growing mussels were a threat to the marine ecology, let alone costing farmers’ money and work that would go down the drain.
As life gradually returns to normal in most places across China, fresh mussels are now available in abundance at very low prices. In Shanghai, 0.5 kilograms of mussels is only 5 yuan and about 15-yuan worth of mussels is enough for two to share along with some crispy and fruity white wine.
Mussels are called haihong in China, which means “marine rainbow,” and in some places they’re referred to as dancai. They are widely farmed in the Yellow Sea, the Bohai Sea and along the east coast.
Fresh, high-quality mussels have a fatty, meaty texture compared with the more delicate and smaller clams. The different members of the mussel family are very similar in taste. The first step in enjoying mussels is to clean them. Put them in a large bowl or basin and soak in water for at least an hour so that the mussels disgorge any sand from their system. Scrub the mussels with a brush to remove the dirt and remove the little “beard.” Any mussels that aren’t tightly shut should be discarded because they are bad.
Steamed mussels are a quick way to enjoy their original flavor, requiring only a few slices of ginger to get rid of the fishiness. Mussels have a distinct salty flavor so no salt is needed if you want a lighter taste, or mix up a simple dressing of light soy sauce, garlic and red chilis.
Cooking mussels in tomato and herb sauce and serving with toasted bread makes a picture-perfect brunch dish.
Dried mussels are used by some people to make soup with ingredients such as winter gourd, or stir-fried with strong-flavored vegetables like leek and pickled radish.
Delicacies in shells
Apart from mussels, spring is a great time to enjoy shellfish, which are fresh, cheap, high in protein and low in calories.
River snails are a humble springtime delicacy in China. The small shellfish only have tiny bits of meat, but the essence of eating river snails is the fun of sucking out the meat with rich sauces.
Spicy river snails stir-fried with a generous amount of ginger, garlic, scallion and chili sauce is a home-style snack that goes very well with cold beer. People usually add some white liquor when cooking the snails to remove the fishy taste.
The larger sea snails, with their spotted pattern, are quite pricy but they are cheaper in spring. One kilogram (about 100-120 snails) usually costs around 100 yuan when they are in season. They contain more meat than river snails and are generally cooked in rice wine or liquor for a stronger, more flavorful taste. Sea snails can be boiled and then soaked in a spicy alcoholic brine to make a great cold starter.
Clams are succulent at this time of the year. The small clams are around 10 yuan per kilogram and they can make so many delicious and healthy dishes. Various clams have different names in China, such as huage and wenge. They vary in size but share similar cooking methods.
Clam and tofu soup is a quick and light dish for spring and summer. Very fresh and clean clams can be cooked with tofu alongside vegetables such as tomato and broccoli to boost flavor and color. They are a great option to get protein and control calorie intake.
Steamed egg custard with clams is a classic local recipe. After setting the clams in water to disgorge sand and dirt, clean them thoroughly and then boil in water until the shell opens, then simply place them on top of an egg custard mixture (usually the egg to warm water ratio is 1:2) and seal the bowl with plastic wrap, steam for about eight minutes and season with light soy sauce and finely chopped scallion.
Fresh clams stir-fried with a heavy dose of chili sauce, spices and seasonings are popular on warmer days, especially as late-night snacks. The shells can hold rich sauces very well and the tender texture of the clams is very satisfying.
Razor clams are larger, meatier and more expensive. They are usually steamed with minimal seasoning such as soy sauce, baked in salt or stir-fried with garlic to highlight the umami flavor. The price of razor clams varies greatly depending on their sizes.
Beer mussels with bamboo shoots
Traditionally, mussels are cooked with white wine, butter, garlic, shallots and parsley, but here’s a spring twist to the classic recipe that adds some extra umami flavor to the fatty mussels.
1.5 kilograms of mussels
3 fresh spring bamboo shoots
1 can regular beer (about 500 ml)
1 clove garlic
Fresh herb of your choice (can be parsley, cilantro or basil)
Light soy sauce, salt and olive oil.
Yield: two to three servings
Clean the mussels according to the instructions above. It’s a time-consuming process but fresh mussels often have very dirty shells.
Peel the bamboo shoots and cut in slices or chunks. Heat up a pot (with some depth) and add a little bit of olive oil to cook the chopped garlic until the aroma comes out, add the bamboo shoots and sauté lightly, season with salt and a little bit of light soy sauce, add half cup of water and 2/3 of the beer. Let it simmer on a low heat until the bamboo shoots are fully cooked through.
If you prefer to add some heat, green chilis and onions can also be cooked in the broth for rich, spicy flavors.
Add the mussels to the pot and pour in the rest of the beer, close the lid so the mussels are cooked until they are open, which is about eight to 10 minutes.
Discard any unopened mussels and then serve with fresh herbs on top.