Natalia Martinez loves her on-the-street seafood. So much, in fact, that she’s written about her favourite snack food not once but twice. Photos by Francis Xavier
“Why don’t expats like snails?” “Do you think it really is a pastime?” “What makes it so special?” These were some of the questions that my editor asked me while discussing my recent contribution about snails and shellfish to this publication. Since my arguments seemed a bit weak during our conversation, I decided to make it up to him and try to convince you, the reader, why eating Vietnamese seafood is a great experience which you should enjoy as much as I do.
A Bit of Background
Snails and clams have long been a part of Vietnam’s culinary history. They are big players in Vietnamese food culture as they are prominent in many parts of the country, and they are a wonderful social food to share among friends and family. That’s why an oc (snail eating) can be seen as a national pastime since Vietnamese meet up any evening of the week — but mostly during weekends — to enjoy this well-loved snack. Also, different recipes made out of these goodies are seen as emblematic dishes at traditional Vietnamese restaurants.
Snails and clams of all shapes and sizes come from Vietnam’s saltwater and freshwater sources: the river estuaries that flow into the sea, the East Sea, and the warm waters in the Gulf of Thailand where Phu Quoc island is located. Those from the sea are more expensive as they are more difficult to catch. Still, a dish of these — no matter if it’s boiled, baked, steamed, or stir fried — costs from VND25,000 to VND50,000.
I’ve come to understand why the majority of expats don’t like this cuisine. Reasonable arguments include the risks of food poisoning, but then again, all street food can be chancey, so the same formula applies — follow the crowd or listen to word-of-mouth advice.
Some people regard the idea of eating snails disgusting, usually because of its texture or the work involved in getting the meat out of the shell — but that’s something which can also happen while eating crab.
Listen guys, it’s not only about eating a chewy creature — which comes cooked in heavenly sauces that you can relish — it’s more about trying an enjoyable food which is an integral part of Vietnamese cuisine. So be brave and get over it!
If my extreme subjective judgments haven’t convinced you yet, maybe these opinions from the Word team will help:
“In Ninh Thuan you can eat this myriad of clams and mussels while sitting on some form of ramshackle floating device. Literally, picking your dinner from the sea and watching as the locals take delight as you eat it, you do get that sense of food as experience, and I can’t remember having had the same feeling at home.” — Jon Aspin
“I can’t stand snails. Even the thought of eating them makes me sick. However, the best thing about the clams here is that they can be cooked with any type of fare. I recently had clams mariniere in Hanoi. Loved the dish!” — Nick Ross
“What makes me love eating snails is not the snails themselves but the sauce and what they’re cooked with, even though I’ve suffered from a heavy MSG allergy a few times.” — Vi Pham
“I’ve had food poisoning four times in my life, and two of the times were from eating random street snails, but I still like them a lot. I think you just have to take risks eating them.” — Francis Xavier
Okay, maybe the last two comments won’t inspire you, but look at it this way — they got over it!
A Guide to Oc and Shellfish
There are endless places where you can enjoy this snack. In our July issue we talked about Vinh Khanh, a popular oc sanctuary in Saigon’s District 4, where snails are regarded as a snack because no matter how many different options you try, they still might not be enough to make a meal. That’s why this night-time adventure is usually combined with beer and some other foodstuffs.
During my last seafood adventure I was in the company of Vy, who had offered to join me and help as my food guide. The variety of snails and clams available in most of the places you visit is astounding.
My own favourite little stall doesn’t offer many options, but I believe they have the best ingredients I’ve tried since I arrived in Vietnam. This hard-working family brings fresh seafood from their hometown of Mui Ne daily, and it’s because of how cute, clean and trustworthy the stall looks that it is successful. These are the people guilty of pushing me into a weekly date with snails and shellfish.
Ordering at these eateries can be challenging. This time I wouldn’t be the one making decisions, though, so I pulled up a plastic stool and let Vy choose for me.
Also known as oc len or what I decided to call ‘sucky snails’ as the secret basically is to suck the snail out of the shell. This brownish, spiral-shaped gastopod comes from muddy river areas and before cooking them, you have to cut off the lower part of the shell, creating a hole which helps you to suck the snail out. It’s generally stewed in coconut milk, turning the dish into a mouth-watering experience. This sweet-tasting snail becomes tender and juicy thanks to the richness of the cream created by the sauce. Make sure to have some bread around to dip in!
Ngheu Hap voi Ot va Xa
Clams with chilli and lemongrass is a dish that doesn’t need any introduction, as few people object to this popular dish. These clams always have to be steamed because of their consistency — they are so juicy that grilling them would blow away what makes them special.
A favourite. These are easy to recognise because of their spotted shells and are known for their aroma. They have a special scent and flavour that doesn’t ask for too much to be added. It’s quite common to them boiled with chilli and lemongrass or sautéed with a generous amount of chilli and salt. Van, the stall owner, cooks them with a heavenly sauce made out of butter, garlic and fish sauce.
Or fat snails are called so basically because of their size. These chewy ones came from Phan Thiet and they are commonly cooked with butter and garlic. A bit disappointing since they lacked a bit of taste — a reason why they are served with muoi tieu chanh — the beautiful salt, pepper and lime dipping sauce.
After devouring ridiculous amounts of snails we moved onto clams, starting with so duong. This type of shellfish, as well as the others that come with a striped shell, are equally good barbequed with onion and peanuts or alone with some salt and pepper. We ate these ones chopped and together with some fish sauce with lime to dip in.
This list could go on forever considering the impressive seafood options Vietnam offers. Now is your turn to explore deeper. Grab some beer and don’t forget the rau ram — a lemony and bitter leaf that helps to get rid of the fishy flavour and avoid tummy problems — between those many bites.
You can try your way at Van’s eatery, 358/1 Cach Mang Thang Tam, Q3, HCMC or meet the clam lady at the corner of Nguyen Van Huong and Hem 215, Thao Dien, Q2, HCMC