Razor Clams: South America’s best kept culinary secrets

Razor Clams

Think of South American cuisine and razor clams are not likely to be the first thing that will spring to mind – especially when the continent’s litany of colourful street food, grilled meats, stews, salads and soups are so well-­-known. But the region’s seafood and, in particular, its razor clams –“navajas” or “navajuelas” in Spanish-­‐speaking countries – are one of continent’s best-­-kept secrets.

An hard to catch shellfish

Razor clams tend to live in sand and mud in bays and estuaries but they are notoriously hard to catch. The way to lure them out is to pour salt on the breathing holes they leave in the sand; the creatures will try to escape, making it easier for them to be grabbed. You have to be quick though, razor clams are notoriously fast burrowers and can easily outpace a human; the species native to South America are known to be able to burrow 13-­-metres deep.

The difficulties associated with catching razor clams have afforded them a special status among shellfish, and they are considered a delicacy. If you step on one you’ll soon know about it; the razor-­-sharp rim of their shells can leave deep cuts – as any clam forager knows.

Razor Clams in traditional cuisine

In southern Argentina and Chile, razor clams are enjoyed as part of a traditional feast of meats, seafood and potato dumplings known as curanto, which refers to the hot stones (literally, the “hot rock”) that the medley is cooked on. Razor clams are also prized in Peru, where they are a significant commercial catch in the southern part of the country, exported to the US, Brazil and even as far as Nigeria and Japan.

With its 4,300 kilometres of coastline, Chile has an abundant choice of seafood and the razor clam is found in a variety of classic Chilean dishes, from the seafood broth known as paila marina, served in a big terracotta bowl (the “paila”), to another firm favourite called machas a la parmesana, razor clams with cheese.

While it might not sound like the most natural combination, this is a very popular dish, loved for the milkiness of the cheese, the richness of the butter and the sweet and slightly metallic taste of the clams. To prepare it, the clams need to be washed to rid them of excess sand and then the innards removed, until only the white clam ‘meat’ is left.

Some recipes recommend giving the pointed part of the clam (which is shaped like a tongue) a gentle whack to help tenderise the meat and give it a melt-­-in-­-the mouth texture. When it comes to the actual cooking of the clams, timing is crucial because they can be quite tough and rubbery if overdone.

For machas a la parmesana, the washed clams are placed back onto their shells and drizzled with melted butter, lemon juice and white wine, seasoned with salt and pepper and sprinkled with a semi-­-mature goat’s cheese or Chilean parmesan (milder than its Italian counterpart), then baked until the cheese has melted. Often served in a rustic clay bowl and accompanied by a glass of crisp Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, all that’s left to do is sit back and enjoy the view of the Pacific Ocean.

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