As a teenager, I first discovered spaghetti arrabiata, enhanced with generous splashes of Tabasco sauce, at a fast food chain serving cheap and probably not very authentic Italian and never looked back.
It’s not hard to see why pasta ranks high as comfort food for most people. There’s something for everyone. A blank slate ready to be dressed up to your preference, with meat or none, in red or white sauce.
Even my mom, who cooks mostly Chinese at home, makes pasta sometimes. I grew up eating short pasta—usually alfabeto, farfalle or fusilli—cooked Asian-style in broth garnished with leafy green vegetables and slices of pork.
Years later, when I was living in Shanghai, China, I started making spicy clam pasta with a Taiwanese American girlfriend, both of us foreign and single in a new city.
Melissa and I met at work, both of us of East Asian descent. As an American and a Singaporean respectively, we could pass for locals in China—as long as we don’t speak too much and let our foreign accents give us away.
We bonded over after-work drinks, soupy Yunnan crossing-the-bridge noodles (a hangover cure we both swore by) and bubble tea.
But most of all, we bonded over spicy clam pasta. Neither of us remembers how we came up with the recipe but it stuck—and we ended up cooking this pasta many times during our time in China.
As long as we could get our hands on fresh, live clams and a bottle of white wine, we could whip up our spicy clam spaghetti, or linguine, in no time, using common aromatics and vegetables that are usually stocked at home like coriander, garlic and tomato.
It didn’t hurt that we knew a reliable clam lady at the market on Wuding Road near my flat and Melissa lived just a 10-minute walk away.
It’s a fuss-free two-pot recipe, one for the spaghetti and one for everything else. Or one if you are feeling lazy and have time to burn. Fry the aromatics and vegetables, add clams and white wine, cover and let simmer, add cooked spaghetti, toss with coriander and you’re pretty much set.
It was perfect, the kind of dish you don’t need to pay too much attention to so you can focus on the conversation as you get the food ready. You hang around the kitchen, a glass of fruity and crisp white wine in hand, ready to chit-chat or complain about work.
We made it on nights we had no plans and nights nursing heartbreaks. It was our go-to dish for dinner parties we organized with other friends at a moment’s notice and other times simply because we craved easy and satisfying pasta.
When we were out of wine, we substituted with beer. The only two constants in this versatile recipe are long pasta and fresh clams, everything else we could improvise.
More than just an excuse for a home-cooked dinner for two girls living so far from home, we built our friendship on pasta bubbling on the stove as we chopped vegetables, clams clattering in the colander.
In good times and bad, there’s nothing an evening of bottomless glasses of wine, conversations and spicy clam pasta that wouldn’t cure and uplift.
We sat cross-legged on the floor, almost ritualistic, with a big pot of freshly-cooked spicy clam pasta between us on the coffee table, digging into servings after servings of our night’s shared labor.
“It was perfect, the kind of dish you don't need to pay too much attention to so you can focus on the conversation as you get the food ready.”
Pasta is always a good idea. I stopped short at creamy pasta though. It’s an acquired taste I still haven’t acquired after 30-something years.
I once accepted a French friend’s offer of quick pasta at home, only to regret it when I found out it was short pasta tossed in butter, salt and pepper with a handful of pre-grated Parmesan.
Probably the most memorable spicy clam pasta I’ve ever made was with fresh clams we dug out earlier in the day at a beach in Hong Kong, lovingly transported home via public transport in a plastic container of seawater.
Even my husband, who isn’t a fan of shellfish, indulged in it.
These days, I’m back in Singapore after more than a decade abroad. I don’t make it often enough and I really should. Last year I was all over orecchiette alla puttanesca but I think it is high time I revisit an old favorite, chock-full of memories, that is even easier to make and never disappoints.
SPICY CLAM SPAGHETTI (SERVES 2 GENEROUSLY)
250g spaghetti, cooked al dente
1kg live clams, degritted and cleaned
3 small eggplant, sliced into rings
1-3 bird’s eye chilli, left whole and slit lengthwise for easy removal
1 bunch coriander, roughly chopped
5 cloves garlic, sliced
3 tomato, quartered
1 onion, diced
1 yellow bell pepper, cut into strips
5 tbsp vegetable oil
1 cup white wine
Set flame to high heat and heat vegetable oil in pot.
Add garlic, onion, bird’s eye chilli and fry until fragrant.
Add tomato, bell pepper and eggplant.
Adjust to medium flame and cook till soft, turning frequently. Remove bird’s eye chilli if you don’t want the pasta to be too spicy.
Mash tomato a little with spatula so tomato juice gets into the sauce.
Add clams and white wine, cover with lid and let simmer until clams open.
Add spaghetti and drizzle fish sauce and soy sauce.
Toss in coriander and mix thoroughly.
Take pot off the heat and serve.