Just as happy as a clam on a bed of spaghetti

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Hoi laai phat naam phrik phao (หอยลายผัดน้ำพริกเผา), or stir-fried clams with Thai roasted chilli paste, is a very common dish at khaao kaeng (mixed dishes) stalls in Thailand, but the serving size is typically quite small for my liking. When a seller scoops up a serving of the stir-fried clams onto a plate of rice, more often than not there will be at least one empty shell lurking among them, so actually you’re just getting more shell than meat. But of course, the essence of this dish also lies in its flavourful sauce; some people like to spoon steamed rice mixed with the briny juices.

Mr. P and I think that eating this dish particular outside home offers less value for money as compared with other dishes, but things are very different if you buy fresh baby clams and cook them on your own though. One kilogram of baby clams—it cost us about 70 baht from the fresh market—is more than enough to satiate two gluttons like us.

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I love looking at these lovely clams. It looks like Mother Nature has taken the time to paint criss-crossing lines on each single shell, so much so that in Thai they are known as hoi laai, or patterned shells. While cooking this dish requires very simple steps, preparation needs to start a bit earlier. Being the seabed-dwelling creatures they once were, these clams carry with them more than just a whiff of the ocean, so I usually soak the mollusc in water for at least an hour before cooking to ‘force’ them to spit out sand and gritty bits.

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Besides baby clams, to cook this Thai dish, other must-haves are roasted chilli paste (naam phrik phao) and sweet basil leaves (bai horapa). Together, these holy trio makes the most alluring combination—now who says three’s a company?—that my favourite naam phrik phao brand, Aroi-D, features the dish on its packaging (see above).

Once the stove is heated up, I look forward to stirring the clams in the skillet. As they bump into one another in the pan, they give out ‘kraek kraek’ sounds, and that’s when I’d conjure up images of a future pet dog at my feet, equally stirred by the smells and sounds from the wok. After a few minutes, the heat would have left its mark on the ingredients: not only would the basil leaves have released their fragrance, the clams would have opened up to reveal their inner goodness while their previously grey colouration with tinges of blue and greens would have given way to an irresistible shade of orange.

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Interestingly, this Thai dish also makes good company with spaghetti, giving me one more way to cook pasta. I got the inspiration when I visited a local Italian-Thai restaurant serving fusion food, with spaghetti stir-fried with clams as one of its signature dishes. Simply prepare spaghetti as per your usual method before topping the plate with the stir-fried shells. To me, the sauces seeping through the spaghetti strands, juices sitting on the opened shells, garlic bits and stir-fried basil leaves all come together to make a very pleasing and appetising sight.

Many empty shells later, we were as happy as a clam. Burp. 😉

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Hoi laai phat naam phrik phao | หอยลายผัดน้ำพริกเผา

Ingredients (serves 2)

500g baby clams (Manila clams work fine too)
1 cup horapa basil leaves, plucked
2-3 tbsp Thai roasted chilli paste
3-4 cloves of garlic, chopped
2-3 chillies, sliced
2 tbsp oil
1 tbsp fish sauce (optional)

Method
1. Soak the clams in water for at least 30 minutes, then wash the shells under running water, giving them a quick rub at the same time and discarding any with mud inside. Pluck the basil leaves off the stems, rinse them and set aside.
2. Pour oil onto a heated wok or skillet before adding the garlic. Fry the garlic until it turns a light golden. Add in the clams and stir-fry them for a few minutes. Once the clams start to open up, add Thai chilli paste and chillies, making sure the paste is evenly coated throughout the mixture. Give the sauce a quick taste, adding fish sauce if needed.
3. Finally, add in the basil leaves and stir-fry the mixture for about a minute of so. Turn off the heat.
4. Discard any unopened shell. Spoon the mixture onto steamed rice or cooked spaghetti. Serve.

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