Whelks are a super sustainable, super good for you, versatile and delicious ingredient. Today’s recipe is Asian-inspired and the canned whelks we are going to use are from Dongwon, a Korean company. The whelks themselves, however, are from closer to home. These shellfish are native to the North Atlantic, in fact there are huge numbers of them to be found in the Bristol channel. Every year, 10,000 tonnes of whelks are exported to Korea from Bristol alone. All whelks in the Dong Won can are from the coast of Ireland. Welcome home fellers!
Because it has been imported from Korea, and is a niche product, canned whelks are expensive. Well, let’s keep things in perspective, whelks are expensive for tinned fish. A single can, enough for one large meal or two side dishes, will set you back between £8 to £10. What! For Whelks? There’s the rub. We have literally millions of them on our door-steps and because so few people in the UK want to eat them we export our whelks to the far East. This means that those of us wanting to enjoy all the taste and health benefits of whelks have to pay a premium.
The real question is why are whelks so unpopular? Look, I know that they are never going to be as popular as prawns or tuna. mackerel or sardines. But, why are scallops that have a similar taste and texture to whelks so highly prized (and therefore expensive) while whelks are shunned?
There are a number of factors that help raise the status of scallops and only one of these has to do with eating them. The biggest factor in raising the status of scallops is simply the fact that they are expensive. It’s just the case that people associate the price of something with its quality: the higher the price, the better the perceived quality. However, the major reason scallops are so expensive is due to the fact that they are difficult to farm and difficult to gather. Added to this is the fact that they quickly go bad once out of the water which drives up the transportation costs. Putting these two factors together, scallops are going to be expensive to get from the sea to the table. A third benefit is that scallops are super healthy for you. Scallops are great for the heart, can help lower your cholesterol levels and improve your memory and cognitive skills. These benefits are highly prized by health-conscious consumers. Being able to label food as heart-healthy and naturally low fat will drive up the price due to the economics of supply and demand. Now let’s turn our attention to the humble whelk.
Whelks are easier to gather than scallops and they travel better. Therefore, all other things being equal, scallops should be more expensive than whelks but not considered superior because neither of these qualities affects the eating experience. But before we move onto a taste comparison, what about the health benefits of whelks? Everything scallops have in terms of health benefits, whelks can match or improve upon.
Health benefits from eating whelks
- Exceptionally good source of protein 19.5g per 100g
- High in vitamin A which is good for eyesight, supports the immune system, lowers the risk of certain cancers, supports bone growth and reduces the risk of acne
- High in zinc. Excellent for skin and hair health, boosts the immune system, improves taste and assists in the healing process
- High in Omega-3 fatty acids. Good for the heart, helps lower blood pressure and reduces the likelihood of stroke
- Low in fat and calories 53 kcal per 100g
But what about the taste? How whelks compare to scallops
Most people’s experience of whelks is eating them cold, perhaps splashed with a little malt vinegar, whilst trying to avoid the seagulls and staying out of the rain on one of the many beautiful beaches of our fair isle. This isn’t exactly a fair comparison to say scallops served warm with crispy bacon or bubbling in a creamy white wine sauce and topped with parsley breadcrumbs. Unfortunately, over-cooked, rubbery and practically tasteless seaside whelks, picked at with a cocktail stick from a polystyrene tray is the abiding image for most people when it comes to whelks. But it doesn’t have to be.
Prepared properly, whelks and scallops have quite a similar taste. Both have mild, briny and sweet flavours. In fact, if you were to sneakily slice up some whelks and serve them in a breadcrumbed gratin I’d be willing to bet most of your guests would think they were enjoying a traditional coquilles St. Jacques.
Today, however, I want to share an incredibly easy, super healthy and very quick recipe for sweet and sour whelks.
Sweet and Sour Whelks
There are three major benefits to this dish. It’s really healthy, it’s really quick and easy, it offers a new taste for your palette to enjoy. Let’s explore these claims.
Healthy. I’ve already listed the health benefits above but something to take into consideration is that this sweet and sour whelks recipe contains far less fat and calories than traditional chicken or pork recipes. The whelks themselves are neither deep-fried nor are they battered but also they require less sauce. Because they are not as dry as battered meats, you really only need a fraction of the sauce. For a regular sweet and sour chicken or pork dish, I would use around 200ml of sauce per person, for sweet and sour whelks I would use around 30-50ml of sauce.
Quick and Easy. The Whelks are already cooked inside the can. The brand I use and recommend Dongwon Canned Whelk 800g already comes in a sauce that brings flavour to the table. To prepare the whelks you simply pour into a saucepan or wok and heat through. For this recipe, I drain off most of the sauce before adding a couple of tablespoons of sweet and sour sauce. But you can keep the sauce and enjoy the whelks without adding anything else. Somewhere this recipe really shines is when you’re preparing a variety of dishes for your guests to enjoy. Because it’s so easy to put together you get another dish to add to the table with very little effort.
A New Taste. Whelks taste like scallops but not exactly so. In addition, you are getting far more meat than you normally get with scallops (due to the price of the latter) and the quantity alone affects the flavour. The sauce that the Dongwon whelks come in adds a flavour that while is recognisably Asian will be new, I suspect, for most of your guests.
Let’s be honest. There are some people that will simply balk at eating whelks. Strangely, I’m not talking about people who just don’t like any shellfish but people happy and willing to munch on prawns, slurp down oysters and scoff scallops but won’t touch whelks with a barge pole. To a certain degree, I do get it when they talk about texture. Even perfectly cooked whelks are chewy, not like rubber balls, but there is a little chew to them. And this does put off some people. However, having said that, I really do believe that there’s an element of snobbery going on here. Scallops have a great reputation, think fine dining and elegant restaurants; whelks have a poor reputation, think cocktail sticks and the ends of piers. But, at the risk of repeating myself, this bad rep is undeserved.
In my experience, two things help. Firstly, don’t try to convince someone to eat a whelk when they don’t want to. You might truly believe that if they only gave them a go, they’d end up loving them and be forever grateful to you. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. When you serve whelks, try to include them as part of a wider array of dishes to choose from. I have found that some people when they see others enjoying whelks are more likely to try one if they don’t feel pressured. Secondly, the whelks in the can are quite large and the bigger the mouthful, the more chewing is required. You can always slice your whelks into smaller portions before heating through.
How to prepare sweet and sour whelks (5 mins)
For one big portion or two side portions
- Oil for stir frying
- 1 can of Dongwon Canned Whelk 400g
- Half an onion sliced
- 1 bell pepper sliced
- 2 teaspoons of minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon of minced ginger
- 2 tablespoons of my Delicious Quick and Easy Sweet and Sour Sauce
Heat some oil in the wok until hot and add the onion and bell pepper. Stir fry until they are almost cooked to your preference. Drain the whelk meat and add the pieces to the wok. Stir fry for a minute or so to heat them through. Add the minced garlic and ginger and cook until you get that first aromatic whiff of fried garlic. Add 2 tablespoons of sweet and sour sauce and stir in. Remove from the heat and serve.