Clam chowder wars: Variations of this popular yet divisive dish

For many culinary arts students, clam chowder may prove to be a deceptively complicated dish.

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December 14, 2017 4 min read

Unless you’re from the Northeast, you may not be aware of the vigor with which people from the region support their favorite type of clam chowder, nor the disdain some hold for other forms of the dish. Whether students in online culinary arts certificate programs want to perfect their own recipes for this hearty meal or simply learn more about it, understanding the differences between each type is critical.

New England clam chowder

The original North American clam chowder – it’s possible the dish entered the U.S. through Atlantic Canada, instead of directly from Europe – New England clam chowder can be traced as far back as the 1700s, Eater said. The recipe hasn’t changed much in the centuries since, with the base ingredients of clams, butter, potatoes and cream or condensed milk remaining remarkably consistent. Other ingredients, including various types of salted pork, celery, onion and herbs like bay leaf and thyme, are also very common, but not present in every formulation of this rich, filling chowder.

This version is viewed with fondness by many residents of New England, and has been for generations. For some, it’s an emblem of the identity of the region, representing both traditional seafaring occupations and leisure and the long history of the six states. There are many long-standing family recipes and specific versions served by seafood shacks and fine-dining establishments alike. Bon Appetit offered a classic take on the dish that prioritizes high-quality ingredients for a delicious final product.

However, New England clam chowder is far from the only take on this especially old and revered recipe.

Bowl of clam chowder.

Manhattan clam chowder

Although it shares a name with New York City’s most densely populated borough, there’s no clear, concrete link between the Big Apple and this type of chowder. It has a distinct difference from New England clam chowder, featuring a tomato base, chunks of tomato, peppers and carrots, garlic and red pepper flakes alongside the clams, salted pork, potatoes and butter.

It’s possible the recipe stems from a Portuguese influence on the older dish, Eater said, although whether it was innovated in New York or somewhere entirely different – perhaps even in New England – may never be clear. The name could reference its place of creation, or simply be an example of New Englanders’ negative, although usually good-natured, feelings toward their neighbors to the west and south. Many felt the addition of tomatoes to the recipe, first documented in the 1930s, was an insult to a proud tradition. The New England Historical Society said tensions reached the point where a Maine state legislator introduced a bill to ban the commingling of chowder and tomato in 1939.

Noting that this version of the dish is very divisive from a pure flavor perspective as well, The New York Times shared a reliable recipe that gives Manhattan clam chowder its due.

Rhode Island clam chowder

With a clear, clam-based broth, Rhode Island clam chowder ignores both the cream base of the more common New England style and tomato base of New York style, although the former is widely accepted in the Ocean State and the latter generally isn’t. Complicating matters further, there’s a red Rhode Island version that uses tomato puree as an additional ingredient, but it still lacks the tomato chunks, garlic, pepper flakes and additional vegetables seen in the Manhattan recipe.

The Rhode Island variation is very similar to the classic New England type, excepting the dairy component. Easy access to quahogs – especially large clams found in the region – and close proximity to the ocean may have inspired this version, which places more emphasis on the clam flavor. Tradition says locals tend to favor this clear concoction, while visitors go for the New England recipe.

Martha Stewart offered an effective recreation of this dish, noting that quahogs are one of the ideal options.

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