This stir fried clams recipe with spicy sweet tamarind sauce and aromatic basil makes a Cambodian dish called ngeav chhar ampil tum, an easy but impressive plate for a casual seafood meal. The addictive tamarind sauce is sweet thanks to ripe tamarind and palm sugar, spicy courtesy of bird’s eye chillies, and fresh basil brings fragrance. It comes together in minutes.
This recipe for Cambodian stir fried clams recipe with spicy sweet tamarind sauce and aromatic basil makes a super easy but striking-looking dish that’s fantastic for a casual seafood feast with friends. The addictive sauce is sweet due to the ripe tamarind and creamy palm sugar, spicy from bird’s eye chillies and chilli paste, while the fresh perfumed basil provides aroma. The dish takes just minutes to prepare.
This is not a dish I would have made before moving to Cambodia but Cambodia changes you – and not in the ways you probably imagine. Sure, you’ll be inspired by the wonderful Cambodians you meet, who must be the most laidback of all Southeast Asians, and if you stay long enough, you’ll become much more relaxed, as well as more resourceful and resilient.
Move to Cambodia and you might find yourself foraging for herbs on your afternoon walks or plucking mangoes from the gardens of complete strangers, as Terence has taken to doing. Nobody minds. If you’re anything like me, you’ll acquire some local habits, like picking out tiny fiddly things like lotus seeds and these little baby blood clams. Both are well worth the effort!
Here in Siem Reap you’ll find this stir fried clams recipe with spicy sweet tamarind sauce and aromatic – or chhar ngeav ampil tum – in good Cambodian eateries and restaurants, but it’s so much better made at home, as you can ensure you’re using the freshest clams and you can adjust the sweet spicy tamarind sauce to your taste.
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Now let me tell you about this stir fried clams recipe with spicy sweet tamarind sauce and aromatic basil for chhar ngeav ampil tum.
Stir Fried Clams Recipe with Spicy Sweet Tamarind Sauce and Aromatic Basil
This Cambodia stir fried clams recipe with spicy sweet tamarind sauce and aromatic basil makes chhar ngeav ampil tum in Khmer, which simply translates to ‘stir fried clams and ripe tamarind’. ‘Chhar’ is to stir-fry or fry, ‘ngeav’ are clams, and ‘ampil tum’ is ripe tamarind.
Cambodians use ‘tum’, which means ‘ripe’ to distinguish this tamarind from green tamarind or young tamarind, which are fresh and sour respectively. The older ripe tamarind, which is dark brown in colour, is both sour and sweet, and the sweetness is enhanced when you add palm sugar.
I suggest this dish for a casual meal, as I much prefer to eat the clams with my hands as my Cambodian friends do. Provide cocktail forks, a finger bowl of water with lime juice, and napkins, and let your guests decide.
This serves two people as an appetiser or more if you’re serving it as one dish of an array of dishes if you’re enjoying a casual seafood feast among friends or family, but you can easily double or triple the quantities as needed.
Tips to Making this Recipe for Cambodian Stir Fried Clams with Ripe Tamarind, Chilli, Garlic and Basil
Just a few tips to making this Cambodian stir fried clams recipe with ripe tamarind, chilli, garlic and basil as it’s a super easy dish to make, as long as you’re organised and prep all your ingredients before starting to stir-fry the clams in the wok. Then you’ll need to work quickly so the sauce doesn’t reduce too much and the clams don’t over-cook.
Cambodians use blood clams for this dish, but outside Cambodia you could really use any kind of clam or even cockles or mussels. Scrub the clams clean, in case your fishmonger didn’t, and once you add the clams to the boiling water, only boil them for a minute, so they don’t over-cook.
I then transfer the clams to an oven tray, and quickly begin to open them right up – they’ll be hot, you may want to wear gloves – pulling the shells right back, so they can’t close again. I discard one shell of each clam for about one third to half of the clams and the reason I do this is partly for presentation but also so the empty shells collect some of the spicy tamarind sauce, which I love to slurp.
If some of the clam shells close up before you get to them and you can’t prise them open, just throw them in the wok with the others. Don’t worry, they’ll open once you start stir frying, and then you can open them right up. Or you can open them after you plate them.
When it comes to the sauce, it always tastes better with fresh homemade tamarind juice made from ripe tamarinds, otherwise you can use store-bought tamarind juice. I use a Cambodian fish sauce, as I do for most Cambodian dishes, otherwise we recommend using Megachef Thai fish sauce as it has the most consistent salinity levels of the Thai brands.
I prefer creamy palm sugar, which we are so lucky to be able to buy direct from the palm sugar makers in a village around 25 minutes from Siem Reap or from the market, where vendors buy direct from the makers. If you can’t get hold of creamy palm sugar, just use dry palm sugar, and if you can’t get hold of that, use coconut sugar, brown sugar or raw sugar. Use white sugar as a last resort.
If you’re not a fan of chilli-heat then skip the bird’s eye chillies and just use sweet chilli sauce or chilli paste. If you are a fan of spice, then two bird’s eye chillies should be sufficient, but by all means add a third. Cambodians like their food gently spiced, so they would not do this, but they are very easygoing and want you to eat your food as you like, so know you have their blessing.
Follow my instructions, but do make sure you taste the spicy sweet tamarind sauce before adding the clams and adjust it to your taste. If you find it too spicy, add more palm sugar. If it’s too sweet add more tamarind juice. If it’s not balanced enough or not salty enough add more fish sauce or even a pinch or two of salt.
When you’re happy with the sauce, add the clams and stir-fry them just long enough to ensure they’re completely covered in sauce and they’re hot. A minute or two will be enough. Whatever you do, don’t over-cook them, so they shrivel up. Throw some fresh basil leaves in at the last minute and stir, then plate immediately and garnish with more fresh basil leaves.
Stir Fried Clams Recipe with Spicy Sweet Tamarind Sauce and Aromatic Basil
- 500 g blood clams cleaned
- 2 tbsp neutral cooking oil
- 2 garlic cloves finely chopped
- 100 ml ripe tamarind juice
- 1 tbsp creamy palm sugar
- 2 tbsp quality fish sauce
- 1 tbsp chilli sauce/paste
- 2-3 bird’s eye chillies finely sliced and de-seeded
- 100 ml water
- 50 g fresh basil leaves
- Prep all your ingredients first as you’ll have to work quickly once you start the clams.
- Scrub the blood clams clean then add to a pot of boiling water for one minute.
- Drain the clams, transfer to a tray, then quickly open all the shells right up, discarding one side. I keep some clam shells for presentation as they also collect the spicy tamarind sauce, and are fun to slurp. If some clam shells close before you get to them, keep them; don’t worry, they’ll open again later.
- In a wok, fry the finely chopped garlic cloves on low heat until aromatic, taking care not to let them brown.
- Add the tamarind juice, palm sugar, fish sauce, chilli sauce/paste and sliced bird’s eye chillies to the garlic, stir to combine well, then allow the sauce to reduce for a minute, stirring occasionally.
- Add the water to the sauce, reduce more, then taste – the sauce should be a little sweet, a little sour, and fairly spicy. If you wish, add more palm sugar, fish sauce or chillies to suit your taste and reduce a little more.
- Add the blood clams and stir fry for a minute or two so the clams are completely covered with the sauce, then add most of the basil leaves, stir well to combine, and plate.
- Garnish with fresh basil leaves and serve with cocktail forks and a finger bowl of water.
Please do let us know if you make this Cambodian stir fried clams recipe with spicy sweet ripe tamarind sauce for chhar ngeav ampil tum as we’d love to hear how it turns out for you.