The street market behind my apartment tower both fascinates and revolts with its piles of unidentifiable meat offerings. Anyone brought up on the predictable blandness lining the shelves of a clean American grocery store can’t help but rubberneck at all the crazy crap people eat over here. An elderly man selling snails off the back of his bike proved such a pleasant change from the normal entrails hanging off meat hooks that I stopped to bask in this display of relative normality. As I started to walk away the old man shouted out “ốc.” In my feeble attempt to parrot this word for snail, I must have murdered the pronunciation for he kept repeating it over and over.
The dragonfruit lady caught wind of this impromptu vocabulary lesson and began yelling ốc at very random intervals. Across the street the rice lady called out ốc as did another woman who seemed so pleased that her coffee stand was now a school of the linguistical arts. Within a minute an ever growing peanut gallery was trying in vain to keep me from butchering one simple word. Can you imagine this scene playing out in an American grocery store with an aisle full of people prompting a Vietnamese dude to say “Dorito” correctly? Five awkward minutes at snail man’s language institute finally evaporated both my goodwill and sense of humor, and I said to hell with escargot as I left this circus of ốc, ốc, ốc, ốc behind.
Just hours later while wandering around, a friend and I passed a Wrap and Roll offering the classics such as spring rolls in clean, air conditioned westernized ambience a world apart from the more fragrant alley market. The $3 February special just happened to be a plate of ốc hấp xả cuộn tía tô which flashed me right back to that unsuccessful lesson in how to pronounce slimy swamp critter. Well, how about we just order some with the easier to pronounce “snail shells stuffed with pork and lemongrass” and call it a day?
No matter how we say it, this dish is decent. A strip of lemongrass thoughtfully tucked under the meat with two loose ends sticking out of the shell requires a slight pull to extract the minced pork and snail filling. Once exhumed, this spicy sweet meat ball is next wrapped in a tangy perilla leaf along with fish mint if one dares ingest this anchovy tasting herb. A nice spicy-salty nuoc cham dipping sauce completes the taste medley. Remember nuoc cham with fish sauce mixed with water, sugar, hot chilis and lime juice? Whether we call this rubbery meat ốc, escargot or snail, I couldn’t believe something announcing its presence with a trail of slime could actually taste good.
Lest anyone think I am always in the trenches squatting on a stool eating street food, I do enjoy a sit down meal with friends, too! Never in a million years would I have thought snail balls in a proper restaurant could be so good. Were it not for the five large shells, I’d have never known a word I only hours before mangled in the sidewalk market formed the core of this interesting dish.