Basil Cockles


On the afternoon of our first day in Swatow, my aunts — da gugu 大姑姑 and er gugu 二姑姑 — met us at our hotel and walked us around a few corners until we found a wet market. The whole place, casual and crowded, teemed with colors and species you’d be lucky to find at any seafood market in America. Each vendor stood guard over styrofoam buckets of seafood that splished and splashed, a showcase of freshness. But almost immediately our eyes fell on a basket of tiny clams, each little oval no larger than a fingertip. My aunts saw our eyes light up and struck up a Teoswa conversation with the vendor.

Soon they had a bagful of “thin shell” clams. “We stir-fry these with basil,” they said. And later that day, they showed us how. Their simple preparation omits sauces and instead showcases the natural flavors of the clams and basil.

Though it’s impossible to find those miniscule “thin shell” clams in U.S. supermarkets, New Zealand cockles are an excellent substitute and increasingly easier to source. Small, tender, and briny, they stand up well to the assertive flavor of Thai basil. Manila clams are also a good (and sweeter) alternative. Either way, select the smallest clams available to you.

“Thai basil” isn’t exactly the ingredient you’d find in a Swatow market, but it is a good substitute for the local Teoswa basil, which is difficult to find in the U.S. The Chinese term for basil — jinbuhuan in Mandarin, 金不换 — translates literally as “would not trade for gold.”

Serves 3-4 with side dishes

  • 1.5 lbs New Zealand cockles or Manila clams
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
  • 2 bird’s eye chilies or other chilies, chopped*
  • 5 sprigs Thai basil
  • 6 leaves Thai basil, chiffonade

*Bird’s eye chilies work well here, but you can substitute a milder chili.

  1. Scrub cockles and wash in a few changes of water. Pat dry. Discard any that remain open when tapped. 
  2. Mix chopped chilies with Shaoxing rice wine and set aside.
  3. Heat wok over high heat and add oil. Add minced garlic and stir-fry for a few seconds until fragrant. Add cockles and stir-fry 15 seconds. Add Thai basil sprigs and Shaoxing rice wine with chilies. Stir fry to distribute. Cover wok to let cockles steam a minute, then stir fry again to redistribute.
  4. Check on the clams every minute, stirring before re-covering each time. When most cockles have opened (if they’re small, this may be in as little as 2-3 minutes), transfer to serving bowl.
  5. Sprinkle with chiffonade of Thai basil and serve.
SeafoodDiana Zheng