"Even lying face down in a tray of vinegar, there is something noble about a whelk."
Jeanette Winterson (1985)
This recipe has been working its way through my gastronomic factory for quite some time. Early formulations simply didn't deliver on the plate what was envisaged in the mind. But perseverance has delivered and so now does this dish.
It's as much coincidence as anything that my culinary leanings are currently toward the Orient. It happens to be that whelks, clams and razor clams have conspired to grace our presence collectively in the recent couple of weeks and these are produce of the sea palpably popular among the Asian customers of the stall, but also produce that I happen to find comfortably at home in the presence of Asian flavours.
I have always had a bit of a weakness for a certain dipping sauce which is indisputably Thai in origin. It's a simple mix of fish sauce, lime, lemongrass, sugar and chopped chilli and, generally speaking, seriously hot from the quantity of (bird's eye) chilli typically incorporated. But it is quite remarkable how palatable is what might otherwise seem to be more chilli than we usually find endurable when combined with the counteractive effects of salty fish sauce, tart lime juice and, especially, the sweetness of sugar. Add to that the cooling mint leaf I have included in this recipe and you may surprise yourself how hot you can trot!
According to Wikipedia, Nam Phrik is a term used to describe a group of Thai chilli sauces which are widely prepared with, amongst other things, garlic, lime juice and fish sauce. Apparently there are over 100 variants of the sort, each having (or at least many of which have) their own distinct name. I can't say I have discovered the name of this particular concoction which includes lemongrass, sugar and kaffir lime leaf, at least not yet.
Anyway, this recipe doubles up on the Nam Phrik by using it both as a marinade and as a dipping sauce. The astringency of the marinade has the effect of tenderising the whelks, an effect which may have the very welcome effect of encouraging the whelk-shy to give them a try. I do actually think, with or without a glass of cold beer, these zingy, spicy, salty, sweet, fresh and fragrant mouthfuls could bring about some converts!
The recipe quantities make a sufficient amount of Nam Phrik to cater for both the sauce and the marinade. Alternatively, they can be made separately of course, and indeed the marination makes the whelks sufficiently highly-flavoured that the dipping sauce need not be served at all. It can actually be quite a messy affair getting a decent dip without a bit of a drip.
Although, authentically, Nam Phrik is really quite fiery, this is purely down to the quantity of chilli included - this is something that can, of course, be adjusted to preference. As hinted above, I would happily makes this recipe using razor clams instead of whelks.
Nam Phrik Whelks
Ingredients (Makes about 12-15 individual portions)
1-1¼ kg whelks, cleaned
3 tbsp lime juice
3 tbsp fish sauce (Nam Pla)
Thai red and/or green bird's eye chillies (Phrik), very finely sliced (quantity to taste)
2 lemongrass sticks, hard outer layer discarded, centres bashed and very finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
1 tsp caster sugar
1-2 kaffir lime leaves, very finely shredded
Leaves from Romaine or little gem lettuces, cut into mouth-sized pieces
Fresh mint, picked whole, large leaves
Fresh coriander, picked whole, large leaves
Put the whelks in a large pot of cold water, put on the hob and fire up the heat. Once boiling, simmer for 10 minutes then drain into a colander and allow to cool. Once they can be handled, remove the meats from the shell, slice off the hard "toe" and discard any dark undesirable bits. Roughly chop the cleaned meats and put in a glass or other non-corrosive bowl.
For the marinade and dipping sauce, combine the lime juice, fish sauce, chopped chilli, sliced lemongrass, chopped garlic and the sugar. Pour half of this over the chopped whelk meats along with the shredded kaffir lime leaves. Mix well, cover and leave to marinate in the fridge for a few hours or overnight. The second half will be used as the dipping sauce so cover this and store in the fridge until ready to serve.
When ready to build, take the whelk mixture out of the fridge and tip it into a sieve to drain off the excess marinade. Lay a mint leaf on each lettuce leaf, spoon about 1½ tsp (a mouthful) of the whelk mixture on top and then lay a coriander leaf or two on top of that. Arrange these on a platter with the dipping sauce in a bowl in the centre and serve at (or just below) room temperature.
Nam Phrik, Wikipedia, accessed 12 June 2020