Bajirak: littleneck clam

If saejogae is the king of clams, then bajirak (바지락) is the humble but hardy peasant, a clam as common as air. In English, bajirak is sometimes called the Japanese littleneck clam, as the species is thought to have come to the U.S. from Japanese oyster shipments via Hawaii in the 1930s. It’s now cultivated along the West Coast and more recently along the French Atlantic coast, Venician lagoons, Sardinia, Tahiti, Tunisia, Israel and Russia—this is a clam that gets around.

Bajirak gets its name because it makes the noise “bajirak bajirak” when moving (we didn’t quite hear it ourselves, but maybe we were too eager to start cooking—take a listen and tell us what you think). In English, the “littleneck” part of the name refers to its fairly short siphons, separated at the ends, indicating that it lives not too far beneath the sand’s surface. Bajirak is easy pickings for gulls, crabs and humans. Fortunately for us, this is a clam that repopulates quickly (less fortunately for ecosystems outside Korea, it’s kind of taken over some native clam species). Bajirak are available year-round, but the best time for these little clams is spring, starting in early spring through early summer—it’s a popular spring activity to take the whole family out for some clam digging. However, it’s probably best to avoid them from July to August, their breeding season, when there is a higher risk of contamination.

In the Dongui Bogam, the classic Eastern medicine text first published in 1613, bajirak is described as being good for anemia and liver ailments (especially relieving hangovers). Mostly, however, Koreans think of bajirak as an all-purpose, tasty little clam—it’s hard to imagine Korean cuisine without it.

Chef’s Notes

Whether you’re just starting your Korean culinary journey or you’ve been cooking Korean all your life, bajirak is a must-know ingredient. They’re easy to use, inexpensive, and add great flavor to soups and stocks. Chances are, if you find a clam in your soup or stew in Korea, it will be a bajirak clam.

flavor profile: There’s a word in Korean, siwonhada (시원하다). It means refreshing and cooling (but not in a minty way) and relieving all at the same time. Bajirak is siwonhada, and especially the broth made from it. The flesh is mildly salty-sweet with a slight sea scent.

how to choose: Even though bajirak has been one of the most common clam species in Korea, it is also on the decline. These days, more and more bajirak are imported from China. Chinese bajirak tend to be slightly smaller and are more pale grey compared to Korean bajirak. Korean bajirak have more varieties of colors. Bajirak from Anmyeondo (안면도) are particularly famous.

how to prepare: The bajirak need to spit out the mud inside if you get them from the fish market, so make a 3% mixture of salt water (1L of water with 30g or 2  1/2 tbsp of sea salt). Leave them in the salted water, covering with a black plastic bag in a cool and shady area for about 3 hours. If you buy clams already packaged in sea water, you don’t have to do this procedure. Usually big marts in the city sell them in a small plastic bags with seawater for convenience.

how to eat: The most common dish with bajirak is bajirak kalguksu (바지락 칼국수, littleneck clam knife-cut noodles) and bajirak soondubu jjigae (바지락 순두부찌개, spicy littleneck clam tofu stew). Of course it can be used for many other dishes like bajirak suljjim (바지락 술찜, bajirak steamed with alcohol) or bajirak muchim (바지락 무침, a spicy dressed bajirak salad, etc. but the first two dishes are the most popular and common ones.

Tip: Don’t overcook bajirak—otherwise they shrink and get tough.

how to store: In a plastic bag with seawater, bajirak will keep for a few days, but otherwise, you can steam slightly and freeze the clam juice and flesh separately. Then, you can easily use them for your daily cooking. But, if you just freeze bajirak without steaming them, the flesh becomes quite dry and shrinks when it is cooked.

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