When I moved to Hanoi two years ago, my friend Phuc quickly became my food guru and introduced me to one dish after another deep in parts of town far removed from the tourists and expats. One of the first Phuc approved street foods to cross my path was snails or ốc. By now you’ve figured out that I eat them from time to time but two years ago I probably could not have thought of many other foods so repulsive. About the only thing that helped me down my first snail was not wanting to look like an American wuss in front of Vietnamese friends. Peer pressure works wonders sometimes.
I’ve since moved to Saigon but thankfully return to Hanoi on a very regular basis for work. My overnight trips to the capital city are a time to hang with friends and reconnect with a cuisine so different than what we enjoy in the south. I never would have dreamed that my latest visit would have me craving snails. Yes, snails. And aren’t snails just slugs with a fancy house they cart around? In theory they still weird me out, but in taste they leave me wanting more.
I brought my friend Allie to Thanh Mai restaurant in Hanoi’s Tay Ho neighborhood right by the temple on the lakefront at 50 Dang Thai Street for a taste of snails. We ordered ốc hấp lá chanh which is simply steamed snails with lemon leaves. A tiny fork extracts the meat from the shell whose sharp edge is used to separate the slimy poop chute like attachment. I know this sounds like full on nastiness to the highest degree but the actual meat part of the snail has a nice nutty flavor albeit in a bit of a rubbery form. The spicy fish sauce based dip with slices of lemongrass, chili pepper, and ginger infuses the snails with a wonderful tanginess.
As we ate these snails just steps away from West Lake, we couldn’t help but wonder if they had been culled from its waters. Someone please tell me this dinner did not come from the ten and a half miles of shoreline holding back that festering cesspool. What we don’t know can’t hurt us, right? Well, at least I keep telling myself that.
What Phuc did for me two years ago with foods ultra exotic to westerners I am now passing on to my friends. I hope they can in turn one day do the same for others straddling the fence about trying some of the more interesting fare out there. Allie enjoyed the snails just fine after her initial hesitation much as I did my first time. I guess moms are always right when they say to just try it because we might like it.