La La ("Venus clam" in Hokkien)
The humble la la is a ubiquitous sight on Singapore’s shores. Known commonly in English as Venus clams, they are widely harvested on the strand, from Pasir Ris to Pasir Panjang. Puny size notwithstanding, their plump flesh and subtle umami entice even the most exacting clam connoisseur.
Several other kinds of marine mollusc are savoured on this little island. The more distinguished varieties are destined for fine restaurants. Yet those of a more modest pedigree are no less worthy of praise; these have been put to good use by the city’s gourmands and now form an essential element in many a dish from Singapore’s culinary repertoire: from Mee Siam to Char Kway Teow.
The wet market is a central feature of Singapore’s foodscape. Located in the historic Malay district of Geylang Serai, this particular pasar (‘market’ in Malay) teems with abundant catch. Glistening ikan pari (“stingray” in Malay) are stacked next to tongkol (“Skipjack tuna” in Malay) and tenggiri (“Spanish mackerel” in Malay) in stalls run by Chinese vendors. These two women at the end of the seafood row are the sole purveyors of molluscs in the market. Their green mussels were caught from Singapore waters, while the cockles and conches are sourced from Malaysia and Indonesia.
By the mid-20th century, Malaya had a thriving commercial cockle-culture. In 1958 alone, this industry produced 200 million dollars worth of blood-cockles. These scenes from the western coast of Malaya demonstrate different harvesting techniques. Depending on the depth of the culture bed, one either used a scoop on a long pole (for deep water) or a mud ski to sieve through exposed flats.
Feeding Tuan Besar
Hard clams are bundled up in scarlet netting next to a tray of whelks at Culina Market, an upscale gourmet retail emporium located on Dempsey Hill, Tanglin.
The district is known for its luxury dining venues, foreign embassies, and the homes of Singapore’s affluent upper-crust.
The seafood section here is a world away from that in the wet markets. The species here are sourced from more distant waters: clams from Japan, whelks from France and oysters from Australia.
“What the flying-boat means to the tuans besar of Singapore is that the oysters have arrived. And what oysters!
After dinner in Singapore on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays, a soft, sibilant sound floats on the tropic breeze.
It is the tuans besar and the Chinese millionaires, softly and with relish smacking their lips.”
Why the Tuans Besar Smack their Lips
Resisting the Tides
Social distinction and hierarchies of taste are not the only themes called to attention by cockles, clams and conches.
They are also lyric reminders of Singapore’s native ecology, despite its aggressively global outlook, and its population’s appetite for distantly exotic gastronomia.
Despite relentless urbanisation, land reclamation and the reshaping of Singapore’s coastlines, local species remain an enduring feature of our natural seascape.