Clams, Mussels, Oysters—Know What They Are and How to Cook Them

These are fast and easy to cook, so here's all you need to know to buy and prepare these shellfish.
cooked clams in a sauce pan with lemons

The Philippines is lucky that it has a great variety of fresh seafood available daily in the market. But if you’ve ever wondered how to prepare the different shellfish available, here is the guide you need to get started on your very first seafood boil. 

What Are Clams, Mussels, and Oysters

Clams, mussels, and oysters are known as shellfish and specifically bivalve mollusks. Mollusks are soft creatures that have an external covering, the shell, that have a two-part hinge that opens up. 


shellfish in metal buckets in water in the palengke or wet market
The clams in Farmers Market are always prepared in this way to ensure these stay alive. 
Photo by Majoy Siason

Clams come in many shapes and sizes. The most common you’ll find in markets are these:

  • • Manila clams are small, bivalves with off-white shells usually around 1 to 2 inches in diameter with a large hinge.
  • • Halaan are smaller than Manila clams with thinner shells. 
  • • Razor clams look like its namesake, sporting a long, thin, razor blade-like shell.
  • • Scallops have beautifully large thin red and white shells and are commonly the size of your palm. 

Mussels (Tahong

tahong or green asian mussels
These are tahong or green Asian mussels.
Photo by

Mussels, locally known as tahong or the Asian green mussel, have gorgeous black-green shells that taper from an oblong-shaped shell to its hinge. Our local tahong are green tipped but other breeds include those that are completely black or have dark blue shells.

Oysters (Talaba)

These oysters are freshly shucked or removed from their shell.
Photo by Canva/Mark Gillow from Getty Images Signature

Oysters, known locally as talaba, have large, unevenly formed off-white colored shells the size of your palm. It has a distinct inward curve on one of its shells which is usually the side that is opened up. It’s famed for producing pearls but it’s great to eat, raw or lightly steamed, as well.

How To Choose and Buy Clams, Mussels, and Oysters

When buying these edible mollusks, it’s good practice to buy those that are still alive. The only tried and true test to know before cooking that every shellfish you purchase is alive is to check each one. One way is by gently tapping on one whose shells are slightly ajar. If it reacts by closing up, it’s still alive. If it doesn’t, it’s probably dead and should be discarded. Any closed shellfish has a good chance of still being alive but the only true test is by cooking it.

razor clams in net
These are razor clams freshly caught from the sea.
Photo by By Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Razor clams have extremely brittle shells, so avoid any that have broken shells. This applies to all shellfish you might purchase because cracked shells can mean bacteria and pests can have entered and contaminated the shellfish inside. It’s best to buy these shellfish still intact in their shells

The only exceptions to this rule are scallops and oysters. Unless you’re familiar with how to open the shells, scallops and oysters are often sold shucked, cleaned, and out of its shell, most likely in a saline solution or in their own juices. These are best bought and consumed on the same day of purchase.

Only buy fresh and unopened scallops and oysters if you have the proper tools and are familiar with how to shuck them.

How to Prepare Clams, Mussels, and Oysters

Shellfish in general are easy to prepare and cook. Once you have a bag of these, preferably all are still alive at the time of purchase, you can start by cleaning them. Here’s how: 


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1 Scrub shellfish free of debris if any on the shell. 

Most shellfish will have their outer shells cleaned already when you buy them from the palengke or wet market, but some may have lingering debris that you might want to remove. To do this, simply scrub the shells with steel wool or a stiff brush to remove broken shells, dirt, and other material on the shells. Rinse shells and set aside. 

oysters in shell and shucked in a bowl with knife, chopping board and beer can
Oysters can be served still in the shells with an oyster knife so each is freshly shucked before eating.
Photo by Pixabay

For oysters, this is especially important to do. Since oysters are usually served in the half shell (one shell is removed while the other holds the meat), the shells should be completely free from debris when served. To do this, simply brush the outside of the shells clean under running water. 

2 Soak shellfish in water first. 

Clams and mussels are usually soaked in fresh water for a few hours to overnight in the refrigerator. This is to allow the shellfish time to spit out any dirt, mud, or any other substances it may have ingested prior to cooking. 

3 Remove the beard but only when ready to cook. 

Mussels usually have a beard (a hairy thread or protrusion near the hinge that is responsible for keeping the mussel in place) that should be removed immediately prior to cooking. Use clean pliers or a kitchen towel to get a hold of the beard and pull it out from the shell to remove it. These are inedible so discard them after removal. 

How To Cook Clams, Mussels, and Oysters 

The easiest way to cook clams, mussels, and oysters is by steaming. Here’s how to do it: Once you have your cleaned shellfish, bring a pot with about an inch of water to a boil. Once boiling, add the shellfish, cover, and let steam for about 10 minutes, covered, or until the shells have opened. Any that have not opened are most probably dead and should be discarded. Remove from the steamer and the opened shells are ready to serve! 

opened clams on a hot grill
These clams have opened up from the heat of the hot grill.
Photo by Pixabay

Grilling or simply sauteing are fantastic ways to cook any of these shellfish as well. Just place in a hot pan over high heat and cook until shells open. Remove from heat and gently season before serving. If grilling, place on foil or a pan to catch the flavorful drippings before placing on the grill and letting the heat cook the shellfish in its shells. Again, cook until the shells open for a fast and easy meal by the seashore.


You can also saute onions, garlic, and ginger, add a little water to the pot, and then add the shellfish. Cover and let the water steam the shellfish open like tinolang tahong. You can use broth or even gata or coconut milk to cook mussels and clams into a flavorful soup or pasta. Stuffing the tahong with garlicky cheese or oysters with a cheesy topping is also good eats! 

How To Serve Clams, Mussels, and Oysters 

To serve, you’ll want to serve seafood immediately with steamed rice or bread. If desired, you can flavor the water as desired with garlic, onions, ginger, parsley, and salt and pepper to add more flavor to your dish.

Oysters in the shell and even razor clams can be served raw with a vinegar dip on the side as its commonly served in the provinces. 

Scallops meanwhile should be seared over high heat in plenty of oil or butter for more flavor like a steak to prevent sticking. Once seared, which should take only a minute or two, flip and cook before serving immediately. You can pair succulent scallops with chorizo or ham for an extra punch of flavor! 

Shellfish is plentiful in a country that’s made of islands, and each of these edible mollusks are best when bought fresh from the catch and served as deliciously as possible. 


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