I love all kinds of chowders, clam, corn, potato… I love them all. My first introduction to chowder was in early 1980, when I went to Seattle to study English for the summer. That was my very first trip to America, so naturally, it had lots of “firsts” in terms of American food. Years later, when I returned to Boston for college, clam chowder became one of my favorite American foods. Once I married my bread loving husband, our two passions met, and I was introduced to the idea of chowder in a bread bowl. I had seen it at restaurants, but I was resisting because I had always been a chowder purist who didn’t even want to sully the flavor with crackers. With that in mind, why would I want to add bread to the mix? If I’m going to invest my calories on a cream based soup, I want more soup, not more bread, right?
Clam chowder must be good, because even though it’s technically a seafood dish, my husband loves it. Well, with really good sourdough we brought back from San Francisco sitting in our kitchen, it was finally time to trade the ceramic soup bowl for a carbohydrate laden one and experiment with something new. Despite my initial resistance, I actually found this dish pretty fun to eat. First, you break up the “lid” and use the torn bread bits to scoop up the soup. With every bite, the level of soup drops, giving you room to carefully tear pieces away from the rim of the bread bowl and slowly work your way down. Yes, it can get messy, but it’s a lot of fun. Do I prefer this over clam chowder in a real bowl? Much to my husband’s dismay, no. I still prefer clam chowder in its pure form. But with the simple addition of the bread bowl, the entertainment value rises greatly–which is one of the qualities of food that I really appreciate.
Not surprisingly, I noticed that I was eating most of the clams while my husband was tearing huge chunks of bread from the bowl. In between mouthfuls, he asked me if they had clam chowder in Japan. The answer is yes, but sadly, it’s not very good. Most of time it’s not as hearty as you would expect. It’s probably one of the few dishes where the American canned version beats the Japanese restaurant version. Why the big difference? Well, traditionally, we make miso and clear soup with clams. Being more watery, these soups aren’t exactly ‘chowders’, but our enjoyment comes from the flavor of the soup infused with clam essence, as clams, still in their shells, give flavor to the broth. Traditionally, clear soup with clams is served on Girls’ Day (March 3). Why this dish? The idea is to celebrate harmony in marriage and the virtue inherent in girls. The clam symbolizes this, because only the inborn pair of clam shells fits perfectly, as opposed to two mismatched shells.
I love both the American and Japanese versions of these soups as they both serve very different purposes. Clam chowder fills you up while hiding its clams among a hearty cream and lots of vegetables. Japanese clam soup looks like consomme, but focuses on the flavor and freshness of the clam. Either way, it will probably be quite a while before we see soup served in a bread bowl in Japan–but don’t tell my husband!