Sunday, June 27, 2010

Snail: It's What's For Dinner

Tony Guglietta, in Mr. Massini's third grade class at P.S. 249 in Brooklyn, New York, circa 1971, used to pull the most amazing things out of his nose. Tight and unctuous, with a slight curl, his magnificent creations were not entirely unlike the entrails of a mollusk. For this reason, perhaps, I've never been a huge fan of escargot.

Over the years, I've made my peace with eating snails – at least as the French eat them: with a medley of shallots and spices, garlic, lemon, and butter. High in protein, low in fat, there's a reason these animals have been eaten by humans since prehistoric times. While snail is not the first appetizer I'm likely to order in a French restaurant, I admit I've eaten some fine gastropods in my day.

Like the French, Hanoians love to eat snail – a tradition they developed long before the French arrived. Snail eateries in Hanoi are ubiquitous, ranging from sidewalk stalls that serve heaping mounds of boiled mollusks, to restaurants that specialize in a range of snail-based noodle dishes and soups. Like the French, the Vietnamese often pair snail with garlic, but ginger, chillies, tomatoes, spring onions and the perennial nước chấm all help to give it an entirely Southeast Asian flair.

There are, however, many reasons to treat Vietnamese snails with care, besides any memories they may conjure up of Tony Guglietta's third grade masterpieces. And this has to do with a fear of their toxicity.

Most snails subsist on a diet of living and decaying plants, though some species may also ingest carrion. It is not uncommon for them to acculumulate bacteria and other material that may be toxic to humans. This is why the French take great care to purge snails before eating them. The French will leave snails for days in wooden boxes, then encase them in rock salt, and wash them numerous times in an effort to get them to disgorge whatever's in their intestines. After all this effort, you can usually assume French escargot is safe to eat.

Hanoi snail is another matter altogether. While the French feast on land snails, most of the snails you get around Hanoi are paddy snails, pulled from the freshwaters surrounding the city. One needn't be an environmental scientist to eye these waters with suspicion. Filled with a host of chlorinated pesticides, PCBs, and other dangerous chemicals, as well as zoonotic trematodes - a parasitic fluke that may lodge in your liver or intestines - the rice paddies from which Hanoi's edible snails emerge are a breeding ground for natural and man-made toxins. Because snails lack the enzymes to metabolize these toxins, the toxins accumulate inside them, and get passed on to you, the diner.

All this might be tolerable if the Vietnamese took the same care to prepare snails for eating as the French. But do you think that happens? Hardly likely.

Having said that, bún ốc Hà Nội is one snail dish I have on occasion because, potential toxins and flukes aside, it tastes good. Bún ốc Hà Nội is a medley of snails and rice noodles, served in a tangy and spicy pork-based soup, with a generous helping of basil, bean sprouts and mixed fresh herbs. Lighter and less spicy than the common bún riêu cua, which is made from crab, bún ốc Hà Nội is a very tasty dish that can usually be found in small specialty eateries. A specialty of Northern Vietnam, it works equally well on a cold winter day (because of its heat) or as a springtime lunch treat (because of its lightness).

There are other snail dishes to be found in Hanoi, including stuffed snails, and grilled snails with lemongrass, which look quite inviting. However, I will continue to handle Hanoi's snails with care, indulging in them once in a great while. I would recommend Hanoi snail dishes only for the intrepid gastronome – ideally one who didn't attend school with Tony Guglietta.


  1. Do they still sell the Pale Snail Ale in the better pubs and sinkholes?

  2. I don't know about Hanoi paddies, and I'm not sure if the ones around Saigon are any better, but the Vietnamese folks I know seem to eat snails like American eat fried chicken, and they're fine. So maybe it's safer than it looks.

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  4. Great content, I also live in Hanoi too and i love Bun Oc snail soup that you wrote about. I might write about it too.