2-2 1/4 pounds small clams, like little necks (If you're using little necks, that's about 2 dozen)
4 cloves garlic, minced (about 2 tablespoons)
2 teaspoons black pepper, freshly and finely ground. Measure after grinding. Yes, it's a workout
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon sugar (palm sugar is great, if you have it)
2 teaspoons oyster sauce (usually available wherever you get soy sauce)
1 lime, halved
1 tablespoon butter, cold, cut into 2 pieces
4 sprigs cilantro, roughly chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
First, clean the clams: OK, so after I did my best on selling you on clams, I have to tell you that I live in constant fear of biting into one and finding sand. It's harrowing. Luckily, most commercially harvested clams these days are already purged of grit, so you can forget all those bits of advice like soaking them with cornmeal. But there will likely still be grit on the shells; soak the clams in cold fresh water for a few minutes, scrub or rub them with your fingers to get them clean, and pour off the water. Rinse a few times, and drain.
Choose a heavy pan with a snug-fitting lid, wide enough to fit most of the clams in one layer. In it, heat the oil over the highest heat until it's shimmery and nearly smoking-hot. Add the garlic and stir or toss. As soon as it gets golden, which will happen in a few seconds, add the pepper, stir to release its flavor to the oil, and right away add the clams. The water clinging to the shells may sputter for a moment, but be brave and toss the clams until they are all coated and glistening with oil.
Add the water; it should sizzle and come to a boil very quickly. Add the sugar and the oyster sauce. Cover with the lid and shake the pan. Give the clams about two minutes in their sauna, uncover and remove any wide-opened clams to a separate bowl; they're cooked, and letting them steam further would turn them rubbery. (If they are just barely open, give them a little more time until they really pop.) Cover the pan and give it a shake, which helps the shells open wide. Uncover again after 30 seconds and repeat until all the clams are opened. If there are any really stubborn ones, like, the rest are done and these are just straight loungin' in the steam for minutes, throw them out; they probably died before you started cooking, and aren't safe to eat.
Turn off the heat, squeeze half a lime into the sauce, and stir in the butter, giving the sauce a nice sheen. Give it a taste. How is it? Delicious? A bit heavy? Squeeze in more lime. Too salty? Try a little more butter or dilute it with a little water, or add a touch more sugar. You want a sauce that tastes balanced, where no one flavor dominates the others, with a seawater note and a lingering, warming burn of pepper. When it's ready, add the clams back in and stir to sauce them up. Finish with the cilantro and serve with plenty of steamed rice or noodles.
Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.