We're going behind the scenes and getting up close and personal with some of the Valley's favorite chefs, learning what it takes to make one of their best-known dishes. Welcome to The Trail.
According to Chinese folklore, geoducks are aphrodisiacs. And when you see one of the large and, let's be honest, phallic, clams sitting on a counter, it's not hard to imagine how that rumor began.
But virility claims aren't the only thing these bivalves have working in their favor. Geoducks, pronounced "goo-ee-ducks," have a rich, chewy, and crunchy texture, as well as a pleasant briny flavor not unlike that of a fresh oyster. In fact, these clams are in such high demand they can cost up to $1 an ounce at wholesale prices. An order of mirugai, or geoduck sashimi, will cost you about $20 if you find it on the menu at a sushi restaurant.
Hana Japanese Eatery in Phoenix gets one of the highly prized clams "every once in a while," says co-owner and sushi chef Lori Hashimoto. And when they do, she warns, the special never lasts for long.
"If people had known about [this geoduck] at lunch it would be gone," she remarks, as she gets ready to prepare a small geoduck for dinner service. The restaurant is empty and quiet, in the hours between the end of lunch and the start of dinner service.
This particular clam sports a neck, or siphon, that's less than a foot long. The tube extends out of the geoduck's shell and ranges in color from a fleshy pink to purple-y and brown at the tip. Though it seems rather large for a clam, this one is actually pretty small, Hashimoto says. Geoducks can reach up to three feet in length, making them one of the largest and longest living clams in the world.
Hana, a small but popular local restaurant, has been in business for eight years. The nine-table eatery specializes in sushi and simple but traditional Japanese cuisine. Lori, a former general manager of a nutriceutical plant turned sushi chef, runs the place with her brother and sushi chef, Koji, and her step-dad, Kazuto.
"The first time I ever saw this was at my mom's house," Hashimoto says of geoduck preparation.
Though Hashimoto was born and raised in the Valley, her mother came to Phoenix by way of Japan, and would sometimes prepare traditional Japanese food at home. That included simpler things such as umeboshi, or pickled salt plums, and teriyaki chicken. But when she got the craving, Hashimoto says her mother wouldn't hesitate to prepare mirugai at home, too.
The difficult thing about geoducks is that you eat them alive.
"When it's alive it's got that deep brine and that really crunchy texture," Hashimoto explains.
So not only does the clam look pretty unappetizing, it also undulates like a giant earthworm when Hashimoto runs a chopstick down its length. Doing so not only proves the clam is, in fact, still alive and kicking, it also helps the clam's muscles stiffen up. The tighter the clams muscles, the better the final texture.
The process of preparation starts in the kitchen.
Though you'll always find either Lori or Koji behind the Hana sushi bar, it's their stepfather Kazuto who reigns in the kitchen. Not only did he train as a chef in Japan, he's also spent decades cooking Japanese food both stateside and abroad. He opened the now-defunct Ayako at the Biltmore back before Hashimoto decided to open a restaurant.
Kazuto scrapes the inside of the clam's shell with a butter knife, deftly separating the creature from its shell. With four quick motions he pulls the clam from it's carapace entirely, and then easily removes the visceral mass, which includes the geoduck's stomach and other guts.
What's left goes into a pot of boiling water for just a few seconds, then into a waiting bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. The hot bath is just enough to allow Kazuto to strip off the outer layer of skin, or sheath, from the clam's neck. The ice water then keeps the clam from dying.
At this point, the geoduck gets passed on to the sushi bar where Koji waits with knife at the ready. He separates the neck from the body, and cuts the tube down the middle. The body meat, which is more tender than the neck meat, will be sautéed, while the firmer meat goes into making sashimi.
Koji lifts the butterflied neck meat high above the cutting board, and brings the it down against the flat surface. Smashing the clam meat against the table helps the muscles tighten up even more, and gives the final dish the perfect crunch.
A few moments later he has the clam sliced thinly. Each pearly, pink piece of clam looks almost like a petal.
Hashimoto drizzles lemon over the plate, with instructions to dip the mirugai into soy sauce before adding a touch of pickled wasabi. Unlike the familiar green wasabi paste, this pickled wasabi offers a more floral and delicate spice.
The geoduck has a surprisingly crisp texture as promised, as well as a robust sweetness that's perfectly balanced with a touch of wasabi spice. Unlike an oyster, the briney ocean flavor here is more subtle, but you can still taste the salty, richness that only ocean dwelling creatures can provide.
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"They're always in season," Hashimoto says of the giant clams. "But the best is the winter."