Johor Kaki Travels for Food

Tony Boey johorkaki@gmail ๐Ÿ‡ธ๐Ÿ‡ฌ Dairy of Singapore active senior. Best years of food, travel, lifestyle

Warming the Cockles of Singapore Hearts ๐Ÿ’—

Cockles, see hum ่ž„่šถ (in Chinese) or kerang (in Malay) have a special place in Singaporean tummies, and therefore our hearts.

See hum or ark clam. Image credit: Wikipedia
Actually, the blood cockle which we are familiar with is not a true cockle. The blood cockle of our hearts is a clam from the Arcidae family of mollusks.

A true cockle. Image credit: Wikipedia
True cockles are from the Cardiidae family of mollusks.

What's the difference? I heard you say. I also asked.

Clams come in many shapes including those that are flat and look like fans. The blood cockles we enjoy so much are ark clams which just happened to look like true cockles. (Frankly, this explanation isn't quite convincing. Any cockle experts here, can help?)

Harvesting true cockles in Wales in 1951.

True cockles are found mostly in sandy beaches of temperate climes like northern Europe while ark cockles are found in warmer climates like south China and southeast Asia.

Both true and ark cockles are enjoyed as food.

People living along China's southern coasts have been eating blood cockles since time immemorial.

So, when the Guangzhou and Fujian Chinese arrived in Singapore en masse in the 1800s, they must be glad that its shores were rich with many types of seafood, including the familiar blood cockle.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Collecting blood cockles at Tanjong Pagar beach at the foot of Mount Palmer in Singapore in 1880. Mount Palmer was flattened as part of the Teluk Ayer Reclamation Projects (from 1879 to 1897 and 1910 to 1932) to fill up Teluk Ayer Bay. Palmer Road today is at the location where the little hill in the photo once stood.

Ark cockle cultivation and farming have long been a lucrative industry in Malaysia.

But, in recent years, its fortunes has dimmed. The supply of cockles have dwindled due to overfishing and pollution. We are close to eating it to extinction ๐Ÿ˜ฑ

History of char kway teow
In Singapore (and Malaysia), see hum (ark cockles) is a must have ingredient in char kway teow (stir fried rice ribbon noodles). Some of the older generation actually call the popular dish, see hum kway teow i.e. ark cockles and rice noodles, are the two defining ingredients of the iconic dish. The blood of ark cockles impart a certain briny taste which add to the savoury layers of caramelised flavours that no other ingredient can in char kway teow. 

Ulu Tiram laksa
Ark cockles is also an essential ingredient in curry laksa for many people, including myself. Like in char kway teow, blood cockles impart its distinctive briny flavour into the dish. Their crunchy, soft, chewy texture is also fun to bite.

But, Peranakan people do not use see hum in their Nyonya laksa ๐Ÿ‘ˆ click

Blood cockles can also be a side dish or a dish itself.

Zhen Wei Seafood Restaurant in Johor Bahru
At Zhen Wei seafood restaurant, they lay the raw see hum on a wiry nest of fried julienned ginger. Then, they smother the meaty mollusks with their signature chilled savoury sweet sauce. Garnished with some chopped raw garlic and a squeeze of fresh calamansi.

Nasi padang stall at Qin Garden coffee shop in Johor Bahru, Malaysia
Blood cockles stir fried with sambal chili (paste of blended hot spices). I generally don't really prefer this as though it is flavourful, the blood cockle meat tend to be stiff, chewy and rubbery from overcooking.

Simply blanched and eaten with a dipping sauce, usually savoury, spicy, sour and aromatic, so it is some combination of chopped raw garlic, cut chili, julienned ginger, chili sauce, lime, cincalok (fermented krill), dark soy sauce, toasted sesame seed, cilantro etc. Each stall have their own secret recipe for the dip.

Goldleaf Taiwan Restaurant Singapore
Raw and chilled blood cockles enveloped in a light savoury sweet sauce, eaten with a savoury spicy dip or simply dunked neat into hot porridge. I actually prefer just the raw cockle like sashimi (but I've stopped eating raw ark cockles nowadays). 

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore

Blood cockles skewered with a slender wooden stick like a kebab. It is either grilled or boiled. Eaten with a spicy hot sauce.

There used to be many Singapore hawker stalls selling blood cockle dishes. I remember having it at Old Airport Road Food Centre in the 1970s. The number has dwindled over the years. Demand has dropped due partly to concerns with potential hepatitis infection.

Cockle fishing at Sungai Buloh, Selangor, Malaysia
Supply is also throttled due to over fishing and pollution of blood cockle habitats.

As you saw, blood cockles have long been pleasing Singapore palates, filling tummies and warming Singaporean hearts.

So, when newly elected Member of Parliament, Jamus Lim tweeted: "It warms the cockles of our hearts to be able to work for the people of Sengkang and for all Singaporeans", there was a spontaneous bloom of warm cockle jokes and memes on social media.

Tell us how you like your cockles ๐Ÿ’—

Though we eat a lot of cockles, and it warms our hearts, it is not a phrase we often use. If you like to know the origins of this phrase ๐Ÿ‘ˆ click

Date: 13 July 2020


  1. In earlier days, I must have cockles in my curry mee or char kway teow. Nowadays, I avoid them because of a bad experience eating poorly cooked cockles from a hawker stall. Actually there's nothing wrong with the food itself, it's just the memory of stomach cramps that make me give them a pass.

    1. I am also very careful about cockles. Must be well cleaned and I ask for fully cooked nowadays. Doctor told me I have some injuries in my liver probably from hepatitis when I was young but I recovered without even knowing it because I was young and stronger then.


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