Yes, I will admit it. The first time I heard this dish’s English name passed my ears, cringes of horror and revulsion bubbled up from deep within. My brain was imploring my feet to run for the hills but morbid curiosity drew me right in. Snails and young banana. Are you thoroughly turned off now? Stick with me here though. Remember what mom always said about not judging a book by its cover? That life lesson applies quite well here.
Months ago I quietly observed as a Vietnamese friend effortlessly maneuvered through a crowded and less than sanitary Hanoian street market for dinnertime ingredients. Inspiration struck as she hunched over a giant tub of snails, and she announced a tasty surprise would be forthcoming. She spent about two hours prepping ingredients and shucking those snails or whatever the process is called whereby its house is removed. She declared her great dinner feast “snail with young banana,” and I am going to guess here “young” is a literal translation of “unripe.”
Fast forward to now, and a restaurant called Thanh Mai on West Lake in Hanoi’s Tay Ho neighborhood presented the opportunity to eat this very same dish of ốc xào chuối đậu. I told my friend Allie this one is better than it sounds yet she remained unconvinced as I placed an order for a $5 portion generous enough for us both.
Her first reaction when the oval serving platter arrived was “Oh wow!” The same thought ran through my head as well since for street food, this presentation was quite elevated and nice. The colors, shapes and textures all worked together like fung shei on a plate. If we could substitute pork or chicken for the snail, this one would be an instant hit for the more western palates amongst us. But I digress…
Every bite of the ốc xào chuối đậu left me wanting more. On the opposite end of the spectrum, one bite of a snail left Allie fantasizing about a turkey sandwich and salad. Being the good sport she is whenever she finds herself stuck on one of my food explorations, she volunteered the banana was quite good. That a tin roof shack with two open air walls can produce such tasty food is amazing to me.
The young banana smacks of boiled potato in both texture and taste. Fried, slightly sweet tofu chunks are a blank canvas looking to other ingredients to pull it all together. Thai basil and purple perilla add a bit of tartness while onions green, white and fried add some tang. Of course the snail is the requisite rubbery balls requiring some major jaw power to break it down.
Perhaps a more marketable name than snails with young banana is needed here. That name just doesn’t do justice to the diverse sweet, sour, salty and spicy tastes delivered with each plunge of the chopsticks. Whatever we call it, please don’t judge this one by its strange name. If you come across it, try it.