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De-Shelling Vietnam’s Love of Eating Snails

Snails prove a divisive delicacy in many countries, but in Vietnam, they are perhaps more misunderstood, and arguably more refreshing, than anywhere else in the world.

Once, while sitting on the side of the street slurping a bowl of bún ốc, I overheard a comment from a nearby table: “I used to make fun of the French for eating snails, and now I’m here doing the exact same thing.”

Although it sounds like a self-deprecating joke, the remark shows how little some know about a Vietnamese tradition I’m really fond of. According to Rice and Baguette: A History of Food in Vietnam author Vu Hong Lien, archaeologists in Nghe An Province discovered that Vietnamese people have been eating snails for thousands of years; much longer than the French.

What’s more, the famous French delicacy escargot is made from European land snails, which are an entirely different species compared to the freshwater snails ubiquitously available and consumed here in Vietnam. While escargot is a multi-million dollar industry that caters to high-end markets, plain, old ốc đồng, which translates to ‘field snail,’ is the food of laypeople.

Bún ốc in Hanoi. Photo by Trang Bui.

Vietnamese people, especially in northern Vietnam, enjoy a surfeit of food made from freshwater creatures: fish, crabs, eels and shrimp, along with the humble snail. Traditionally, these creatures were collected from rice fields, lakes, springs and rivers, which made them convenient and cheap for those unable to afford the luxury of eating farm animals every day.

Today, due to the widespread use of chemicals in rice production and an increase in commercial consumption, freshwater snails are largely farmed. Yet the concept of eating snails remains traditional: an activity suited to streets or family dinners.

In Hanoi, freshwater snails can be eaten very simply: boiled with fresh herbs, such as lemongrass, then shucked and dipped in a sour and spicy sauce. For the most part, the sauce makes the dish special and differentiates one street vendor from another.

Guests are asked to choose either big snails (ốc to) or little snails (ốc nhỏ), or – if you’re crippled by indecisiveness – a mix of both in one bowl (ốc lẫn) is often available. When it comes to choosing, however, size is important. 

The big snail, a genus scientifically named Pila, is similar to apple snails in the west. Its flesh is thick, juicy and too chewy for some people, which is why they prefer the smaller, softer snail. Belonging to the same Bellamya genus as trapdoor snails, these elongated little creatures are like a freshwater cousin of the mud creeper, a sea snail very popular in southern Vietnam.

Personally, I prefer mixing the two; while the hearty, larger snails are the stars of the show, their smaller relatives act as supporting characters, bringing more flavor and style.

That may sound sumptuous enough already, but there’s more than one way of combining snails and noodles –  from classic bún ốc, either served in a hot bowl of tomato broth or in separate dishes, to the curry-like bún ốc chuối đậu, which is a stew of snails, fried tofu and green bananas.

Bún ốc chuối đậu, presented in an aesthetically pleasing clay pot. Photo by Hieu Tran.

Truong, owner of Ap 91, a small retro-style cafeteria with two branches in Hanoi that specializes in bún ốc chuối đậu, explained the key difference between the two ways of eating the mollusk. “The tomato-based snail dish gets its sourness from dấm bỗng, while banana-based snails use mẻ,” Truong tells Saigoneer in Vietnamese.

Dấm bỗng is a type of vinegar made from rice wine lees, a specialty of northern Vietnamese cuisine. Mẻ, on the other hand, is a vinegar created from a mix of yeast, lactic acid bacteria and nematodes. Truong creates his own version of mẻ, which is one of the reasons why his bún ốc chuối đậu is so unique. Another is the presentation: while the dish is commonly eaten as a soup, Truong took inspiration for his signature dish from home-cooked meals.  

“I didn’t see any shop selling the same dish we eat at home, so I decided to sell it,” he explains. “We separate the soup from the noodle because, unlike tomato-based soup, this stew is thicker due to the cooked banana. If you put the noodle inside the soup, it doesn’t look nice, the noodle gets spongy quickly, and then the taste is spoiled.”

According to Truong, shrimp paste is another essential ingredient when creating the dish’s classic flavor. When some of his customers complained they didn’t like the notoriously smelly condiment, his only option was to slightly reduce the amount of shrimp paste in the dish. “I tried leaving shrimp paste out once,” he says, “and I had to throw away the whole thing. It just doesn’t taste the same anymore.”

Bún ốc Thanh Hải in Saigon. Photo by Hieu Tran.

If you’ve been to both Hanoi and Saigon, you’ll already know how local cuisines vary hugely in each location. In the case of snails, the dish has been adjusted so much that its southern variant is actually more reminiscent of bún riêu cua. Made from tomatoes and paddy crab, there’s a sweetness to the broth, which is more appealing to the southern palate. Other ingredients, such as fried tofu, pig blood curd and sausage are sometimes added – the snail is considered the icing on the cake, not the cake itself.

Yet some people, no matter how many times they have been exposed to snails, simply don’t like them. Perhaps it’s the weird look, the insipid taste, or the thought of their slithery reality. Some even blame their natural habitat – the depths of freshwater mud.

Freshwater snails have even more of a fishy smell than sea snails, so they need to be cooked with aromatic herbs, such as shiso leaves, garlic, turmeric and lemongrass. Arguably, it is these herbs and spices that bring out the best in the creatures, but even these additions aren’t enough to satisfy everyone.

As Truong puts it, “It is pretty much the same case as durian. You either love it or hate it.”

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