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.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Urgent vs. Important

Steven Covey, in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, writes about the difference between doing what's urgent, and doing what's important.

Urgent matters are those front-burner priorities which we simply must attend to: the fire in the kitchen, the crying baby, the immediate crisis. Important matters, on the other hand, are those which, while not necessarily urgent, add value to our lives: doing exercise, taking time to be with friends, eating well, making art.

The last two months have been filled with urgent affairs, and my life in Hanoi has lost a bit of its focus. I'm old enough to know that life does this sometimes: even in an exotic locale, when faced with matters that appear urgent, it is easy to lose perspective. The damn job, the daily commute, the influence of insipid people leading uninspiring lives. How easily we forget why we came here in the first place. Before we know it, the lotus blossoms have bloomed and died, summer has laid its blanket upon the earth, and a season has passed without our noting it.

The solution is always, ALWAYS, to forgot oneself, to look outside, to open ones' eyes and notice, as Miller told us, that, "The world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people..." Hanoi at the cusp of summer is rich in vignettes:

Vignette #1: The street market that sets up on a small side street near my house every afternoon is filled with action. In a small building entryway, set back a little from the street, there's an old woman with betelnut-stained teeth who sells herbs. Not a lot of them, small bundles of rau mùi, tia tô, rau thơm, rau kinh giới, and all the other greens that are so necessary to the Vietnamese table. I buy from her regularly. We never barter; she charges me exactly the correct price, and with slow, precise movements, puts my herbs into a small plastic bag.

Vignette #2: There's a small gang of boys who are my neighbors in the crowded apartment building I live in. Aged from six to 12 years, or thereabouts, they create a ruckus in the hallway that is often hard to take. Running back and forth fighting their little-boy wars, kicking soccer balls, shooting bottle caps – they play all the little boy games I used to play when I was their age, on the other side of the planet. Whenever I come out of my apartment, they all stop and yell, "Hi HAL!" and I haven't the heart to complain about the noise.

Vignette #3: I drive everywhere and have no idea what's legal and what's not. The other day, wearing my mask and helmet, I'm pulled over by a cop after turning right at a red light (hardly an egregious action in a city where nobody has a license, and driving the wrong way down a one-way street doesn't raise an eyebrow).

The cops in Hanoi are famously corrupt, and I know he just wants to shake me down, but when I take off my mask the cop realizes he's hooked himself a foreigner. He pauses, and then awkwardly tries to explain that I'd made an illegal turn. I understand him perfectly, but say to him in the most ear-splitting foreign accent, "I don't understand."

He calls over a young woman who speaks basic English to translate; I continue to feign ignorance. After a moment, realizing he's letting other fish swim by, he pats me on the back and lets me go. I put on my mask, rev up my engine, and in a moment of cheekiness before I speed away, I wink at the girl and thank her for her help...in Vietnamese! As I peal away I look behind me, and the cop is smiling appreciatively at my ruse.

I've had a thousand such moments in the past month, but urgency kept me from noting them. Life got busy. In this regard, the daily grind in Hanoi is no different from anywhere else. The important thing is to catch yourself before you let too much time pass by.