Grilled shells with spring onion at Oc Dao Restaurant in an alley off Cong Quynh Street in Ho Chi Minh City
In Hanoi, ốc (snails) are a popular light meal, especially in the late afternoon. Thinking about a light dish while hanging out with friends as the sun goes down, many a Hanoian chooses a bowl of ốc luộc, or boiled snails. After a reasonable portion, there is still space in the stomach for dinner with the family at home.
Ốc luộc has the exotic taste of a creature that spends its entire secret life on the bed of a river or pond. It’s easy to get hooked to the dish, and Hanoians feel something is missing if they have to go without ốc for a long time. So they undergo the only treatment that works in this situation by going to their favorite ốc luộc eatery.
Nowadays snails are on the menu of quite a few five-star restaurants in Vietnam, but the best are still found in sidewalk eateries. One of the most famous outdoor ốc diners in Hanoi is located opposite Ham Long Church on Ham Long Street. The calm of the late afternoon with trees all around and church bells chiming makes the meal more delicious.
Hanoi’s ốc eateries serve country food that’s true to the culinary traditions of northern Vietnam. Most of their snails come from fields, ponds, lakes and rivers, and never from the sea. As ốc is rich in protein, a cooling component of food, cooks like to spice things up by adding lemongrass, ginger and, lemon leaves to create a balanced dish.
When snails are boiled, the cook cannot hide their quality, so if they are not fresh, it shows immediately no matter what herbs, spices and other ingredients might be added as camouflage.
Cooking ốc luộc is time consuming. First, the snails must be left alive in rice water and lemon or pomelo leaves overnight to loosen their dirty innards, then they must be washed many times. Once they are ready for the pot, the snails are boiled with pomelo leaves, lemon grass and ginger to balance the Yin and Yang. The snails are eaten with a mixture of fish sauce, lime, sugar and finely chopped lemon leaves.
As it is a cheap dish, Hanoians do not treat their business associates to ốc luộc, but they do enjoy them in the company of family, friends and workmates.
On a chilly winter’s day, ốc luộc warms the stomach. Nobody eats ốc luộc alone. The dish is always followed by hot nước ốc, which is the boiled snail water with lemon grass and ginger, at no extra charge. To finish up, a bowl of hot water infused with herbs is brought to the table for everyone to wash their hands.
For many Vietnamese people, sitting at an ốc eatery in the big city brings back memories of a rural childhood, since the countryside is where most Vietnamese or their immediate forbears came from.
It reminds me of summer visits to our neighbors on the outskirts of Hanoi. We would go down to the river and get the snails to make ốc luộc. Its taste would linger in the stories we shared and the fragrance of the pomelo thorns we used to remove the snails from their shells, rather than the sterile needles supplied at outdoor snail cafes of today.
Ốc luộc is a simple snack and can be considered the appetizer for a series of snail courses. After ốc luộc, my mother would cook snail and noodle soup, bún ốc, or a sort of snail porridge called cháo ốc, or canh ốc chuối đậu, which is a snail soup with green banana, fried tofu and tía tô (perrilla leaves).
Very different from the ốc luộc in Hanoi, the snail dishes in Ho Chi Minh City remind me of French cuisine as they are more complicated and hence more expensive than the straight ốc luộc in Hanoi.
Down in the southern metropolis, snail dishes are more cosmopolitan and represent an open-mindedness and eagerness to catch up with global trends among the Saigonese.
Using shellfish from the rich coast, HCMC’s snail restaurants serve a diverse menu of sea snails. As the locals prefer strong flavors, instead of boiling the snails like for ốc luộc, Saigonese cooks use different Eastern and Western ingredients. Very often coconut, chili (a lot of chili), peanuts, spring onion, cheese, butter and garlic go into the mix. And for some recipes the cooks go beyond stir-frying the snails to baking them in an oven.
One of the most popular ốc eateries in HCMC is located in an alley off Cong Quynh Street in District 1. A favorite haunt of celebrities, it’s open all day and boasts a menu of more than a dozen choices priced from VND100,000 to VND200,000.
Ốc should not be eaten in excess; the stomach should never be filled to burst. The true gourmand always leaves some room in the tummy so they can come back for seconds.
Reported by To Van Nga
(Above) (Left) HCMC’s snail restaurants serve a diverse menu of sea snails