As you have by now likely surmised by the number of snail meals I consume in Hanoi, our exotic shelled friends are an integral part of the local cuisine. How they even find enough snails each day to keep everyone happy is beyond me. The thought of what actually festers in those rice paddies scares me quite a bit. Do snails actually even come from rice paddies? I really don’t know, and this is one of those great mysteries of life intriguing me but better left unexplored.
Now two years ago had you told me I’d be dining on this mess, I’d have told you to go take a one way journey to the fiery depths of that place opposite heaven. I mean have you ever looked closely at a snail? No one in their right mind would eat one based on appearances alone. The fact that we call it escargot in English to fancify the name should tell us something. Then again it’s just putting lipstick on a pig for a snail is a snail.
Making the fatal mistake of thinking about all this while eating ốc luộc lá chanh, or snails cooked in lemongrass and lime leaves, caused me to question my sanity. As I used a tiny two prong fork to extract a rubbery chunklet I asked myself what the hell are you doing here. Using the sharp end of the shell to slice away the slimy poop chute or whatever that embryonic like sac is made me want to just call it a day.
The Vietnamese are quick to remind us that snails are “good for health.” Then again my Vietnamese friends tell me everything under the sun (except for the sun) is good for health. Fruit, rice, MSG, coffee, and even beer. OK. The beer I want to believe, but snails? Are these cholesterol laden rice paddy bombs really all that good for health? I am going to truly investigate this one.
In the meantime I began an investigation of another sort with the spicy ginger based nuoc cham dipping sauce accompanying our escargot (that just sounds more palatable). Ponder this. What is fish sauce? It’s salted anchovies placed in giant wood barrels fermenting over a year to yield a stinky, overly malodorous brown liquid. Choi oi as the locals say. Choi oi indeed.
My friend and I slowed down which prompted the now worried proprietress to ask, “No like??!!” Vang, vang, vang. Yes, yes, yes. We do indeed like. We just accidentally took a detour thinking about what we were actually putting in our mouths. Sorry ma’am. Since beer is so good for health we both ordered one and soon enough the fermented yeast and hops brought us back on track. As we plowed through the giant bowl of snails, I began thinking no matter what they look like, they really are great.
The broth made fragrant by lime leaves and lemongrass adds a subtle hit of flavor to the meat. And that amazing nuoc cham…Let me just say I could have downed it by the spoonful were it not so laden with sodium. The spiciness of chili peppers combined with grated ginger made my lips burn and tongue sing as we washed it all down with that cold beer. I can’t wait until my next bowl of these things. Even if snail turns out not to be good for health, they sure are good for happiness.