Ggomak (꼬막) refers to a small group of clams known as “blood cockles” in English—so named because their blood is a bright red. Unlike most clams, whose blood is clear, ggomak blood contains hemoglobin, a red protein normally found in the blood of vertebrates. Hemoglobin helps circulate oxygen more efficiently, which ggomak need, since they tend to live in low-oxygen mudflats. It can be a little disconcerting to see your clams bleed red, but put aside your misgivings and give these plump and juicy clams a try if you haven’t already.
In Korea, ggomak are eaten in winter. January is typically the peak season, but this year winter was a bit warm until a frigid cold snap in late January, so it’s still a great time to buy ggomak. They’re harvested along the western and southern shores of the peninsula, though the village of Beolgyo in South Jeolla Province is especially well-known for them. Here, where the waters of the Beolgyo stream meet the ocean, the mudflats contain no sand, so you won’t crunch down on that annoying grittiness that other clams sometimes manage to sneak in. Beolgyo—and ggomak along with it—were brought to national attention with the publication of the serialized novel Taebaeksanmaek (“The Taebaek Mountain Range”) in the early 1980s.
The epic novel (later made into a film, which you can watch here) follows four characters in post-colonial Korea as various factions struggle for power in their small town. It’s a saga about ideologies, but it also put Beolgyo on the map. Readers were drawn in by the stories of women going out to dig up clams, the detailed instructions for cooking ggomak, even the lecherous Yeom Sang-gu’s description of the lovely Oeseo as a delicious, “chewy winter ggomak.”
Three kinds of ggomak are sold in Korean markets: pijogae (피조개), sae-ggomak (새꼬막) and cham-ggomak (참꼬막).
1. Pijogae are the largest, measuring 9–13cm wide. They have thin ridges and are coated with deep brownish-purple hairs (known as a periostracum).
2. Sae-ggomak are smaller, around 5cm wide, have 30 to 35 ridges, and are also covered with dark hairs.
3. Cham-ggomak are the most expensive and hardest to find of the three—they take four years to reach maturity compared to sae-ggomak’s two. They’re around the same size as sae-ggomak, but have thicker, wider ridges (around 19 to 21) and don’t have dark hairs. They look a little bit like small, pale grey stones.
flavor profile: Blood cockles have unique, complex flavors and a distinctly chewy texture. Most sources we found describe cham-ggomak as the most juicy and chewy of the three, but our descriptions are based on what we tasted (naturally, the flavor profile totally depends on who is tasting).
Pijogae: This clam has a totally different flavor profile than the other two varieties. It has a much stronger iron flavor, since it is way bigger than the others. And because of its gut, it has an almost creamy element—imagine eating steamed oysters.
Sae-ggomak: Your first flavor note is a nice strong, salty flavor, followed by a burst of sweet meaty juice. It has an almost briney flavor, and an amazingly chewy texture.
Cham-ggomak: Cham-ggomak still has the same salty-sweet first flavor note that cham-ggomak has, but it’s a little less sweet overall than sae-ggomak. It has a more clean and simple flavor than the other two varieties of ggomak, but you can also taste more iron.
how to choose: When examining clams at the market, lightly touch the open clams and see if they snap shut. If not, don’t buy them. It’s important to buy live cockles. They don’t keep long and can go bad easily, so smell them before purchasing—there shouldn’t be any strong smells. Avoid clams with holes in their shells.
how to prepare: Wear rubber gloves if you have them, otherwise you’ll end up with scratched-up fingernails. Under cold running tap water, scrub the clams vigorously several times with your gloved hands until you see decently clear water (they’re pretty muddy at first, this may take a few tries!).
how to eat: Of course you can toss these into your salad, rice or even your pasta, but Koreans usually boil them. We dress them lightly with seasoned ganjang sauce.
recipe: Ggomak muchim (꼬막 무침, blood cockles with soy sauce dressing)
how to store: Ggomak goes bad very easily so you can store them for just up to 3 days. Eat them as soon as possible. Store them in the vegetable drawer in your fridge without fully closing the container so they can breathe.