Millions of tourists sail through the towering stone sentinels of Ha Long Bay without ever tasting the delicious, thick-shelled clams that line its bottom.
“The limestone karst in the seabed of Quang Ninh offers a unique habitat which improves the quality of many sea creatures, especially ngan (Austriella corrugate),” said Nguyen Van Thuyet, spokesman for the provincial Department of Science and Technology.
According to Thuyet, the local clams are many times more nutritious than the (Meretrix lyrata) commonly cooked up on sidewalks all over Vietnam.
“They used to be an abundant and popular family food in Quang Ninh. I guess this is the reason why people started calling them ngan,” he said, noting that the species is locally synonymous with the northern word for “boring.”
Indeed, the clam seems to be everywhere in the cuisine of the province’s eponymous capitol where restaurant-goers can pick out their own ngan from aerated buckets and tanks at most restaurants. They sell for around VND300,000 (US$14) per kilogram–a price that includes the cost of preparation.
Dao Xuan Dat, owner of the Kim Quy Restaurant at 267 Ha Long Street said ngan can be prepared in a number of ways.
“Most customers just order them grilled. We like to stuff them with spices and wrap them in tin foil before throwing them on the grill—this seals in the flavor.”
Men drink Ngan alcohol but women praise it [for the virility it grants their partners]. Thang, owner of a restaurant in Ha Long
To prepare a simple delicacy, Dat tosses a hash of raw minced ngan into a bowl of rice wine to create a kind of alcoholic ceviche.
“You can also add a little rice porridge into the cerviche for a mild taste,” he said.
Tu, a tourist from Hanoi, who appeared to be enjoying the clammy rice wine extolled its incredible balance.
“The heat of the wine blends nicely with the sweetness of the clam,” he said, describing the flavor as unforgettable and entirely un-fishy. “It gives me a feeling somewhere between being drunk and not drunk.”
Thang, the owner of a restaurant at No.1 Vuon Dao Street in Ha Long, said that the clams aren’t only sought after for their flavor.
“They’re famous for improving men’s virility,” he said, laughing out loud. “Men drink Ngan alcohol but women praise it [for the virility it grants their partners].”
One local woman, however, said the creature was traditionally consumed after the baby-making process. Toan, a retired teacher in Ha Long, recalled a time when ngan was widely prescribed to women recovering from child birth.
“Almost every family cooked ngan porridge to nourish a woman who’d just given birth,” she said. “The practice has become less common these days because the tourism boom has jacked up the price of the clams.”