When you picture eating snails, you may think of a buttery French delicacy. But halfway across the world, there’s another type of snail that is just as popular. And it’s called ốc, or “sea snails.” In the streets of Vietnam, people have been eating them for centuries.
Vietnamese love to eat snails – not only because they are a delicacy – because they are wonderful social food to share among friends and family.
There are five different ways to order the snails in Vietnam: steamed, fried, sautéed, coated in chilli and salt, or grilled, and there were several different toppings as well, ranging from lemongrass to coconut milk, to chilli sauce, to scallions and crushed peanuts. The all-time favourite will be the snail in Vietnam is no doubt the pricy sweet snail, ốc hương (Babylonia Areolata is a species of sea snail).
Sitting in ốc street in Quận 4 in Saigon. The atmosphere is chaotic, intoxicated and steaming hot. A dozen sauce-streaked plates sit between mounds of empty snail shells on the plastic tabletop; beer cans float on rivulets of melted ice; crusty bread crumbs fall like snowflakes as hunks of baguette are torn away to mop up the sauces; T-shirts and toes are spattered with tamarind, lime, chilli, coconut and lemongrass; the floor around the plastic chairs is a mosaic of discarded crustaceans:
This is the debris of a good night’s ăn ốc – snail eating. Other tables all around tell stories of similar indulgence. It’s Friday night, and all over the country hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese are out enjoying ‘shell tapas’.
Ăn ốc – is a national pastime in Vietnam. Every day of the week, but particularly on weekends, large groups of work colleagues, friends, and families descend on quán ốc (snail eateries) to eat, drink and talk the night away. Snail eating is part of nhậu culture, which is the Vietnamese word for going out, eating, drinking and socializing on an epic scale.
Snails of all shapes and sizes come from Vietnam’s freshwater sources – flooded rice paddies, rivers and lakes – and from the ocean – the East Sea and, in the southwest, the Gulf of Thailand.
The Romans are believed to be the first to cultivate snails as food, fattening them on vine and grain. They studied and classified snails; they knew almost everything about the edible species – From Heliciculture to cooking!
Outside of the Romans, the use of snails as in Spain was documented as early as the 11th century. In a recipe, rabbit and snails were found allegedly enjoyed by the caliph Muhammad ibn Abbad al-Mu’tamid of Seville. Since then these mollusks were called cargols in Spanish, and have appeared in innumerable recipes across what is modern-day Spain.
Spain has seen a huge growth in snail cultivation over the past few decades, from 26 farms in 2000 to more than 200 in 2018. According to data from Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment, Spaniards eat around 16 millions of kilos of snails per year, second only to France; a large percentage are consumed in Andalucía, Valencia and Catalonia, regions where there’s a tradition of hunting for snails in the wild (many people still consider foraged snails to be tastier than their cultivated counterparts). In these areas, it’s easy to find snails in taverns, bars and traditional restaurants, either on their own or as an ingredient in a tapa, starter or first course.
Paellas in Spain were also traditionally cooked outdoors over a wood fire with rice and whatever was on hand around the countryside: tomatoes, onions, rabbit and, of course, snails. In late spring, snails become the star of many Spanish dishes, from Arroz de caracoles to a popular tapas dish of snail in a spicy broth.
The French served snails dated back in the Middle Ages; the church permitted consumption of snails on days of abstinence. Usually, they were fried with oil or onion, cooked on skewers, or boiled.
One of the early acclamations to this culinary titbit appeared in 1394 in a French newspaper, Le Managier de Paris: “Snail, which is called escargots, should be caught in the morning. Take the young small snails, those that have black shells, from vines or elder trees; then wash them in so much water that they throw up no more scum; then wash them once in salt and vinegar, and set them to stew in water. Then you must stick these snails out of the shell at the point of a needle or a pin; and then you must take off their tails, which is black, for that is their turd; and then wash them and put them to stew and boil them in the water again, and then take them out and put them in a dish to be eaten with bread. And also some say that they are better fried in oil and onion or some other liquid after they have been cooked as above said, and they are eaten with spice and for rich people.”
By the seventeenth century, the consumption of snails declined and much of Europe for centuries afterwards, they were regarded not as delicious food, but as a garden pest. Which indeed they were, wickedly reproducing in great numbers and eating virtually anything green.
In French, they made a fashionable comeback when French politician and diplomat, Monsieur Talleyrand had some prepared for a dinner he hosted for a Russian czar. Since that time, French has been the snail’s gastronomical champion. Perhaps it is not the most notable date on our calendars, but did you know? The National Escargot Day is on May 24th!- This day is in honour of the famous French dish of cooked land snails.
Another product from the European land snails is snail caviar, also known as escargot caviar or escargot pearls. Like sturgeon caviar, these snails’ eggs are considered a luxury, and a more exotic one at that. Flavour-wise, it is earthy and woody, with hints of mushroom and asparagus.
Today, probably two best known French snail dishes are: “Escargot a la Provencal – snails served in the manner of Provence. These will be the smaller petit-gris snails served in a fresh tomato sauce, flavoured with garlic, pepper, and parsley.”
And Escargots a la Bourguignonne – snails in the manner of Burgundy. This is the most famous of all snail recipes. Snails prepared with herbs, especially parsley, cream and beurre d’escargots, snail butter. Snail butter is butter, garlic, shallots and parsley, in which the snails are cooked.
Snails make a good option as we look for new sustainable foods. There’s not much bi-product or waste, we don’t have to cut down trees to farm them, and they don’t eat a lot plus are ready to be eaten at six months old, especially the European land snails.
Add this to the fact that they are high in protein and low in fat, and they could pretty much be the next superfood – if it were not for the seemingly uncompassionate farming and cooking methods. Once they reach a plump-and-juicy 12 grams, snails are fasting for up to a week to be purged of impurities or toxins they might have eaten and dropped alive into boiling water – much like lobster. In some regions in French, they are put on a diet of thyme or other herbs to flavour them.