On the Snail Trail … in Sai Gon (HCMC)

The recent Netflix documentary Street Food was cult viewing for us. It featured a whole episode devoted to Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam’s second city is still largely referred to by locals as ‘Saigon’, its name prior to the reunification of the North and South in 1975. In fact even the code for the airport is still SGN. Even those that do use its new moniker simply say HCMC for short.

That episode of Street Food focused on a woman who cooked a traditional southern Vietnamese dish of snails. I had first thought it would be fun to hunt her out and sample some of her delicacies but I arrived into Saigon on a Friday and advice I read on the internet said she often didn’t work on Fridays, moreover,  if she did she would be  finished by 2pm. It was 2.30pm on a Friday. I had left it too late.

But the joy of street food in Vietnam is discovering your own places, with that special Vietnamese local with a twinkle in their eye that gets you and knows how you like your food. So, I asked a local who spoke English at a coffee shop whether she could recommend anywhere that does snails.

She looked at me with confusion. Surely she must know what I’m talking about. The documentary pointed out how popular they were. I looked up the name of the dish Mrs (or Cô, the Vietnamese term for auntie, roughly equivalent to Mrs ) Truoc cooked. Her dish is Ốc len xào dừa, the mud creeper snail cooked in coconut sauce. Oh, she said! Her face lighting up. Anything with Ốc was what I was looking for as there were a variety of different dishes.

The place she recommended, it turns out, wasn’t a single restaurant but an entire district of restaurants serving Ốc dishes. My Grab driver dropped me at the one he thought was the best – but I wasn’t so sure…

It wasn’t as populated as the other places. But as with all things in Vietnam, you can’t fight it. You’ve got to go with the flow. None of them speak any English nor is the menu in English. And most of the dishes are Ốc something! The owner had the shells of all the different types of snails, clams and other intriguing creatures on display so I figured the easiest thing was just to point to one.

But of course, once I had pointed, I still had to decide between a number of options on the menu presumably relating to what topping I wanted or how it would be cooked. I recognised the word for chilli – ớt – and avoided that as I am not a fan of spicy food. In the end I went for rang muối. I recognised the word muối but couldn’t remember what it meant. I now know it means salt  and rang means roasted – salt roasted – but at the time I just had to pray I was getting a good meal.

I sit down inside the restaurant. There are plastic chairs, metal tables and an huge television blaring out the obligatory karaoke at a deafening volume; typical Vietnam. I am the only one inside and there are only a few people outside. Not a great sign.  It is 5 minutes or so before my dish is brought out.

The snails were delivered on a plate of a kind of crumble. I tried it and it tasted kind of tangy but after a moment or so it would burn your mouth slightly, it was a kind of spice I couldn’t quite work out.

Rang muối is a kind of chilli salt. It was not too spicy for me, so I grabbed some with my snails to wash them down.

To eat the snails themselves I had to pick them out of their shells with a small fork but not before I had attempted to eat the entire shell to protests of ‘Không!’ (no!) from the restaurant owner.

This was my first-time eating snails. I recoiled slightly when I realised that I’d have to pull out the insides of the snail rather than eat it whole: I could understand the appeal of becoming vegetarian at this moment. But I went for it, never-the-less.

They were tasty and not as slimy as I imagined, much like the texture of clams or squid; I was impressed.

 I couldn’t help thinking as I left though that I’d been left short-changed and that they would have tasted better in a soup or with some other accompaniment like the coconut offering of Mrs Truoc I had seen on Netflix.

I need to come back next time with a local friend or when I’ve learned a bit more Vietnamese, for sure.

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