I love snails and periwinkles so much, I'm ashamed that it's taken me more than a year to get around to them on this column. Meaty like clams and as sweet as oysters, periwinkles are highly ranked on my list of unappreciated creatures, slightly below sea cucumbers but way ahead of squab (pigeon). I started cooking periwinkles a few years ago when I pulled up a crab pot from the depths of the Pacific only to find it crawling with dozens of periwinkles but no sweet and juicy Dungeness crab. Unperturbed, I plucked the critters from the net and plopped them into my bucket for dinner.
Periwinkles and snails, though they're not the same, are both gastropods that show up in so many of the great cuisines of the world — there's escargot, the bistro favorite of snails broiled in garlic butter; Asians stir-fry them over blazing fires, sealing in their sea or river water juiciness; and in most coastal areas around the world, it's common to simply boil periwinkles in seawater and eat them as is.
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Periwinkles would also rank highly on the list of work-required-to-eat-versus-pleasure-obtained metrics. Seafood gourmands and chicken-feet gnawers probably know where I'm going with this argument, but let me explain: Some of the food we love, like chicken feet and Dungeness crab, are well worth the effort involved to chew, peel, shell, spit, and in all other ways, manipulate our hands and our mouths to obtain what is delicious. Some items, like blue crab, depend on the eater's personal skill and preferences. Are you a first-rate sheller? Then blue crab should be no problem — you'll have those suckers out of their carapaces in no time. Do you shell or eat things at the rate of your grandmother who has false teeth? Best to stick with porridge.
For champion gnawers and shellers, a whole world of delicious creatures becomes fair game. Hairy crabs, which come into season in China around this time of year, fall into this category. You'll need a lot of patience, though no greater skill, to tackle the diminutive size of these crustaceans.
Periwinkles on the other hand, require little patience but a considerable amount of know-how. To eat a periwinkle, you must bring the opening of the shell to your lips and suck: not too forcefully like a vacuum but not too gently, either. At first you'll receive a slight rush of the oceanic juices within, as sweet and as ambrosial as can be. While you're sucking, lower the tip of your tongue to the opening of the shell and use just slightly more pressure to bring out the tip of the animal itself. The flesh will be stuck to a small, perfectly round piece of armor, the periwinkle's last defense against the outside world. Find that circular piece of shell, and use a toothpick or the tip of a pointy chopstick to scoop out the meat. And there you have it: the somewhat complicated, though not time-consuming way of getting at periwinkle meat. Fear not if this sounds too tiresome. You'll get it by the dozenth or so periwinkle.
* This metric is really only valid in the West. Asians actually enjoy the process of shelling, so the extra "effort" involved is part of the fun.
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