Quintessential Boston Foods: Chowder
Boston’s dairy-based chowders are an unforgettable part of living in the Hub. Done correctly, they are rich, sustaining meals in a bowl. Despite their unfortunate reputation as a caloric nightmare in a bowl, a properly made and portioned chowder can be a balanced and frugal way to make the most of the scarce resources of winter. No Boston student should leave without having a taste of at least one bowl of chowder. In this all-inclusive guide, we’ll cover the best ways to get your chowder fix in Boston restaurants, and also provide you with the knowledge necessary to make it yourself at home regardless of your nutritional and dietary concerns. At the end of this article, you should have no excuse not to call yourself a chowderhead.
Where to find it in Boston
The best chowder in Boston is a contentious issue. It’s ubiquitous on restaurant menus thanks to the abundance of fresh seafood, but like many popular foods, most of them aren’t that good. Boston Magazine runs a best chowder competition every year. In 2013, the winner was B&G Oysters (550 Tremont St., bandgoysters.com). Their treatment of the dish was noted for its creative use of seasonings, inclusion of smoked bacon, and heavy distribution of clams in a heavy cream broth cut with white wine and clam juice. The oyster bar charges $14 for it as an appetizer, but considering its reported richness, even the budget-conscious might find that they could escape with a fairly reasonable bill.
In 2012, the award went to Ned Devines’, the Faneuil Hall pub. This eclectic tourist destination might not strike you as the typical chowder mecca, but considering that their version has won the Harborfest’s Chowder competition so often that it sits in the hall of fame, it might be worth a visit. The wide menu selection and reasonable prices ($8 for the chowder, most entrees under $20) makes this a great place to go with friends or family and a solid option for earning your chowderhead credentials.
Another well-regarded option is Union Oyster House, which offers both fish and clam chowders at a more typical soup price, $8 for a bowl and $6.50 for a cup. The Union Oyster House, which claims to be the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the United States, hasn’t topped the competition lists but with its history and its well-regarded other offerings it could be the perfect spot to bring visitors.
Every Boston college student knows that Legal Seafoods is the go-to destination when parents are in town, but did you know that their chowder is considered one of the best in the city? The quality reportedly differs slightly, with Boston Magazine accolades going to the Chestnut Hill spot in 2010 and the Park Square spot in 2011, but you probably can’t go wrong at any location in town. The magazine cites the quantity in production as a key factor of the quality of the product – a bigger batch means the restaurant can make their broth with a large proportion of seafood and thus rely less on potatoes or dairy than many of their competitors. At $7.50 a bowl, their chowders are some of the most affordable items on the menu – a great way to treat yourself without making your parents regret their generosity.
Making it at home
When you’re in Boston you’ve got few excuses for not making your own batches of chowder at home. It’s associated with this city for a reason, and that reason is that its ingredients are common, affordable, and high-quality. Any supermarket will offer the necessary maritime protein, dairy, potatoes, and seasonings sufficient to make as much as a week’s worth of chowder for under $20. Furthermore, chowder is a valuable lesson in several cookery techniques. Produce a pot of chowder right and you’ll have made fish stock, correctly cooked clams, tempered and added cream to a soup, and learned the value of restraint in seasoning.
If you branch out from clams, you’ll also find that chowder is great for learning how to cook white fish, bivalves, or crustaceans. For those on special or restricted diets, dealing with the necessary changes can be its own important experience in mimicking flavors or embracing difference. For a well-researched and thorough traditional method, I happily pass you on to Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats. He learned chowder making at B&G, and his method for a full-on, traditional clam and bacon version has little competition. But what if you can’t eat clams or bacon, or want to use another type of seafood? Chowder is a great way to liven up white fish, which is very nutritious and, at least in Boston, quite affordable, but suffers on account of its lean flesh and mild flavor. Like the curries of Thailand, a chowder turns lean protein into a balanced dish and in my opinion, fish chowders are a really great winter staple soup to help stretch good quality fish.
Elise Bauer’s version at Simply Recipes has never led me astray, regardless of the richness of the dairy I used or the type and quantity of white fish I included. If you wanted the smoky flavor of the salt pork or bacon commonly used in traditional chowder, you could use a small amount of smoked meat such as turkey, chicken, or (for a kosher version) smoked herring. Otherwise, you might add smoked paprika. If you don’t eat dairy, chowder is still within your reach. While New England chowder must be dairy-based with some sort of meat, chowder as a broader concept is accommodating of any diet. For a meat-inclusive, non-dairy chowder with a similar texture your options revolve around alternate sources of fat.
A coconut milk chowder will never taste quite like it came from the East Coast, but presents the opportunity to play with alternative starches and seasonings. Inspiration could come from Thailand’s Tom Kha, a rich coconut-forward soup not unlike a thin chowder, which flavors itself with lemongrass, cilantro, lime, hot pepper, and ginger. Reduce the liquid content, go light on the seasonings (especially the heat and acid) and add a starch like potatoes (sweet potatoes, cassava, or true yams would be interesting as well) and you’re well on your way to embracing the wider world of creamy soups. Here’s a version from Nigella Lawson that takes this approach. Cashews are popular with vegan cooks for their neutral, almost dairy-like flavor and richness. They offer a solid option for both meat eaters and vegetarians. The Paleo diet has spawned versions that manage to capture nearly all components of the traditional chowder without using dairy or the diet’s ‘neolithic’ no-nos (which include potatoes)
Vegans and vegetarians can likewise find cruelty-free comfort in a cashew-based preparation. Well-known vegan website The Post Punk Kitchen uses the meatiness of mushrooms and the brininess of Japanese nori to imitate clams in their New England Glam Chowder. I imagine you could also use vegetarian bacon (Tempeh) or even seitan prepared with kombu (not dashi, which includes fish!) to imitate the smokiness of salt pork or the chewiness of clams. Even serious chowderheads would probably say yes to seconds on a well-prepared vegan chowder that captured the balanced richness of the meat-based version. Regardless of the way you get your chowder fix, we hope that this extensive guide to chowder gives you the impetus you need to embrace this important part of Boston’s food heritage.
Cover image source.