Published in Maclean's Magazine, August 3, 2013
Geoduck’s grotesque appearance may rob it of its rightful place as king of the sea
The big geoduck clam lying flaccid in the bottom of the shellfish tank at your local Asian grocery store may be a prized specimen, but even if you’re an adventurous cook, you may not be tempted to take it home to your kitchen. Maybe it’s the weird, wrinkly neck (called the siphon) protruding far beyond its oval shell, or the slimy-sounding name—pronounced “gooey-duck.” It looks rather rude, with a phallus-like bit that can reach a meter in length, and weigh up to eight kilograms. Hardly the lovely littleneck you slurp in your chowder.
But when Victoria chef Takashi Ito peels off the ugly exterior and slices the long tube into thin pieces, it curls into pretty, translucent ruffles that are easy to enjoy just as they are—crunchy morsels that taste sweet, clean and briny, like the wild British Columbia waters where they’re harvested. You may be reminded of a fresh oyster, or the smaller raw clams served as nigiri at sushi bars, but the geoduck meat is a delicacy and brings even higher prices, the siphon offering clam meat with a firm, crisp texture, while the attached, tongue-shaped interior portion is softer, more like liver or uni, and used for cooked dishes.
“The geoduck is a beautifully flavoured local clam, yet most people have never tried it,” says Ito. The Japanese-born cook, former executive chef at the venerable Empress Hotel, is now behind the stoves at Aura, a contemporary waterfront restaurant at the Inn at Laurel Point. Ito says the tasty geoduck suffers from an image problem and he wants to change that, starting with the name. He says a more fitting moniker for the largest and most expensive clam in the world is “king clam.” “King clam is widely enjoyed by the Japanese, especially on sushi and sashimi dishes,” he says. “I have been eating king clam since childhood.”
The geoduck is native to Canada’s West Coast, and for 30 years it has been fished commercially here and sold as a premium product to Asian markets. Before that, it brought just 20 cents a kilo and was ground like hamburger for cheap chowder or cut into strips to deep fry, says Brian Kingzett, manager of Vancouver Island University’s Deep Bay Marine Field Station. Now, it’s the most valuable marine creature on the coast, fetching $50 a kilo, and twice that in Hong Kong restaurants. Of six million tonnes a year harvested globally, about half come from the wild B.C. fishery concentrated in the Strait of Georgia off Vancouver Island. (The other half are from farms in Washington’s Puget Sound.)
Smaller butter or Manila clams can be found just a few inches below the surface of the sand, where otters, starfish and other predators can dislodge them. But gweducs (their First Nations name) “dig deep”—three feet down or more, where predators don’t go. This may be why the oldest geoduck on record is 146 years old, with some claiming specimens of 180 years. Along the Strait of Georgia, divers walk the sea floor in weighted suits and dislodge the clams with high-powered water wands. It’s possible to get one on a Vancouver Island beach at low tide, but finding a geoduck is usually the result of a chance meeting—the limp end of that “elephant trunk” proboscis protruding from the sand. Then it’s a mad, messy, muddy dig to dislodge the clam from its hiding place. You need an intertidal fishing licence, a long shovel and an even longer arm.
If you just want to catch sight of one, Kingzett says the field station is open to the public, with touch tanks filled with species from sea urchins and sea cucumbers to geoducks. The latter, with their grotesque and erotic appearance, are the stars of the show. “I can always tell, by the squeals, when they’re passing a geoduck around,” he says.
Anyone wanting to taste the delicacy can look for geoduck sushi or sashimi at Japanese restaurants (“mirugai” or “long neck clam” on menus) or try a geoduck soup, hot pot or stir-fry in Chinatown. At Aura, chef Ito offers small plates and a raw tasting menu featuring the bivalve. The clam takes well to Ito’s creative preparations, from his crispy king clam cake with sweet togarashi aioli, to the Hawaiian-style king clam poke, where it’s chopped fine and marinated with soy. But it’s best to savour geoduck straight up and raw—you’ll see why it’s the king clam of the sea.