Soft-shell clams are harvested in great numbers from Chesapeake Bay and for generations have afforded a simple but quintessential eating experience -- hot steamers dipped in melted butter.

But just as clams -- and clam lovers -- are found around the globe, so are a multitude of methods for serving clams. For example, the three sauces that follow reflect this enthusiasm with which clams are regarded in most oriental cuisines.

Soft-shell clams are a small, oval, thin-shelled bivalve with a protruding blackish neck, a streaked, sandy-colored shell and a sweet, delicate flavor. When buying soft-shell clams, select specimens with unbroken shells and firm, contracted necks. To prepare the clams for steaming, scrub them gently under cold running water, taking care not to break the shells.

When this task is completed, there's the gritty issue of whether to soak the clams to get them to "spit out" sand. Despite the argument over whether to soak clams in salted water, cornmeal and water, or not at all, there is no reliable method for getting the clam to spit, so soaking is really a moot point.

The best way to avoid eating a sandy bivalve is not in the soaking, but the serving. For each clam diner, provide a steaming cup of strained clam liquor, the liquid that accumulates in the steamer during cooking. For sandless eating, remove the steamed clam from its shell, peel off the black skin from the neck and the attached membrane, and rinse the clam in the cup of liquor. Then, dip it in melted butter, or one of the sauces that follows, and pop it into the mouth -- sans sand.

The clam liquor, a delicacy in itself, can be sipped during the meal if care is taken to leave the sand at the bottom of the cup.

The first of the three accompanying sauces is a spicy and complex concoction from the western regions of China, engaging hot, sweet, tangy, salty, sour, pungent and nutty flavors into a single, intense mixture. In addition to spiking clams it also works wonders drizzled over saute'ed soft-shell crabs and as a dipping sauce for grilled shrimp.

The second displays the delicate and subtle flavors for which the Japanese are renowned -- soy and rice vinegar, ginger, sake and mirin set off by a sprinkling of scallions. The third is a marriage between the oriental love for toasted sesame seeds and our western proclivity for bathing things in butter. It combines the rich nutty flavor of toasted, crushed sesame seeds with melted butter, lemon and cracked pepper, producing a hedonistically rich bath for the humble clam.

To round out a soft-shell clam supper, serve steamy corn on the cob, crusty salt sticks or rolls and fresh peach ice cream.

THE CLAMS (4 servings)

3/4 cup dry white wine

1 large onion, peeled and thinly sliced 5 pounds soft-shell clams, scrubbed

Put the wine, onion slices and clams in a large, nonreactive pot with a tight fitting cover. Bring to a boil over high heat and steam, covered, for 5 to 7 minutes, shaking often to allow the clams to open.

Remove the clams to a deep platter with a skimmer, discarding any that haven't opened, and strain out and discard the onions and grit.

To serve, spread the table with newspapers, divide the clams among 4 soup plates and provide each diner with a cup of strained liquor. Place a bowl for the empty shells in the middle of the table and distribute the sauces within reach of everyone.


1/2 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup scallions, minced

1/4 cilantro leaves, chopped

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 tablespoons sweet dark vinegar or balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons toasted, crushed sesame seeds

1 tablespoon chili paste with garlic

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

2 teaspoons sesame oil

Combine all ingredients and serve at room temperature.

JAPANESE SAKE-GINGER SAUCE (Makes about 1/2 cup)

1/4 cup sake (Japanese rice wine)

1/4 cup soy sauce

2 tablespoons mirin (sweet rice wine)

2 to 3 tablespoons rice vinegar to taste

1 tablespoon very finely minced fresh ginger

2 tablespoons scallions, minced

Combine all ingredients and serve at room temperature.


*1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

3 tablespoons toasted, crushed sesame seeds

1 to 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 to 3 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

2 teaspoons sesame oil

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and heat over low heat until melted. Serve hot.