Clam chowder is a source of gustatory joy and regional rivalry. What type of chowder you love best will depend largely on where you're from, but the basic ingredients remain much the same, and this rustic dish is a favorite with American seafood aficionados.
The word "chowder" comes from the same root as the word "cauldron," and refers to the pot in which the soup is made. The precursors of American clam chowder came from England and northern France, but the American colonists were the first to use clams as a main ingredient, due to their easy availability on the Atlantic coast. Clam chowder originated as a working-class one-pot meal among the fishermen of New England. The first printed recipes for clam chowder in America date from the mid-18th century, but chowder has continued to evolve since then.
There is more than one type of clam chowder, and recipes for each type will vary according to the personal taste of the chef, but all clam chowders share some basic ingredients. The most important ingredient, of course, is clams. Small clams are favored for their texture; larger clams tend to be somewhat tough when cooked and can be gritty. Chunks of potato are also often used in chowder, along with onion. Diced or chunked carrots and celery are not uncommon, and clam chowder is often sprinkled with a bit of chopped parsley before serving to add color.
Boston Clam Chowder
The most popular type of chowder in America and the one most people picture when they think of chowder is Boston clam chowder, also called New England clam chowder. Boston chowder is the original form of chowder, with roots in the 18th century. Natives of Maine and Massachusetts invented this dish, and made it with a cream- or milk-based broth, giving it its characteristic white color and thick texture. Traditional Boston clam chowder is made with clams, potatoes, hardtack or crackers, and salt pork or bacon. Today, the layers of hardtack or crackers are generally left out, especially outside of New England, and carrots or celery are often used for extra flavor and color.
Manhattan Clam Chowder
The other main type of clam chowder, though not as popular as the Boston type, is Manhattan clam chowder. Manhattan chowder is immediately distinguishable from the Boston variety by its color. Since it is made with a tomato base, Manhattan chowder is red, rather resembling cioppino or bouillabaise. This type of chowder may have been introduced by Portuguese immigrants in the 19th century. It never achieved the wide popularity of Boston clam chowder, remaining mainly a regional dish. There is a rivalry between the aficionados of the two types, and most restaurants that serve chowder will serve either Boston or Manhattan, but rarely both. Besides the tomato broth, the ingredients are similar to the Manhattan type, usually including potato, carrot and celery.
Rhode Island Clam Chowder
There is one other type of clam chowder, which is almost exclusively regional to southern Rhode Island. Rhode Island chowder, like Manhattan chowder, is tomato-based, but the broth is thin and almost clear. This type of chowder is loved by locals, but remains virtually unknown outside its native region.
Condiments and Serving Methods
Manhattan and Rhode Island chowders are usually served alongside clamcakes. Boston chowder is often presented in a sourdough bread bowl that soaks up the creamy broth. Many fans of the Boston variety like to spice up their servings with a few drops of Tabasco sauce; though not strictly traditional, this condiment adds a little kick to the cream and complements the clams. Lovers of all three types often like to float a few oyster crackers on top for extra texture. This practice is reminiscent of the old tradition of adding hardtack to the stock during the cooking process.
The majority of seafood restaurants today offer a version of clam chowder. Each establishment has its preference as to general type, and each will offer a slightly different combination of ingredients, but no matter how it's served, clam chowder is a favorite among seafood lovers. In all its permutations, clam chowder is a classic American comfort food.