The Weird Cockle Colombian Chefs Love
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it might not look pretty, but it’s pretty delicious.
By Wesley Tomaselli
Bivalves, beware. On the mangrove banks of the Colombian Pacific, a hunter is wading into thick, soupy mud and bending over. Then she plunges her hands down into the earthy broth, finds a mangrove root and feels around for … there it is! A hard shell containing a succulent little pearl of sea meat.
The people call it piangua. Sure, it might be a hard word to force out for the non-Spanish speaker, but piangua is easy to gulp down. This cherry-size, jet-black mollusk is the littleneck clam’s South American impostor. And dare we say it might put the French and their moules frites obsession to shame?
Colombians — mostly the country’s Afro-descendants who live in fishing villages along the Pacific coast — have been hunting this weird cockle and cooking it up for years. But most of the Pacific region was laced with gun-slinging guerrillas and paramilitaries — not exactly the best ingredients for trade, right? Well, things have changed in Colombia. With more security and a culinary renaissance underway in Bogotá, chefs here are getting excited about the country’s untapped regions where fish and seafood are king. Piangua is starting to show up on some of the country’s most vanguard menus, like that of the innovative Mini-Mal in Bogotá’s Chapinero Alto neighborhood.
It looks like black mud on the plate, but don’t be fooled.
But if you want the real deal, the way the abuelas make it, with no funny business, then go to Don Chucho’s place downtown. Secretos del Mar is a hole-in-the wall in the capital’s historic district, La Candelaría. Proprietor Don Chucho, grinning wide and uttering few words, floats around behind the cash register and lets a line of three cooks bang out plates for hungry Pacificos, tourists and whoever else has a hankering for fish and seafood the way they make it in Buenaventura, the place Chucho grew up. Secretos serves its piangua encocado (with coconut milk) and a blend of tangy, cilantro-like herbs. The price? Twenty-six thousand pesos, or about $8.81 at the going exchange rate.
Yes, it looks like black mud on the plate, but don’t be fooled.
Alejandro Gutierrez, the chef at Bogotá’s progressive, market-focused Salvo Patria restaurant, likes to describe the flavor as “earthy, minerals … has a kind of iodine thing going on.” He’s totally right. At Secretos, the herbs give it some earth, some edge. Mop up that sauce with a spongy patacón and wash it down with borojó juice.
Gutierrez tells me the best piangua he’s had was in Guapi, Cauca, a fishing town accessible only by plane or boat. “So many of these places are so remote, so far away — they’re really hard to get to and so we don’t know about them,” Gutierrez says. “Chefs here are just starting to learn about these kinds of ingredients and how to cook them.”
This odd cockle grows all up and down the Pacific coast. You can also find piangua in Peru, where it takes on a ceviche persona. In Colombia, it’s usually a preparation of coconut milk and herbs. Don’t like slimy textures? Weirded out by shellfish? You might want to steer clear of this bivalve. But then you’d be missing out on one of Colombia’s most hidden dishes.
Get Some: Piangua
- Secretos del Mar: Carrera 5 #12B-20 in the Candelaría neighborhood, Bogotá
- Mini-Mal: Carrera 4A #57-52 in the Chapinero Alto neighborhood, Bogotá