Nghệ An is not only well known for its eel dishes but also different types of fried snails that, with a pungent taste and delicious characteristics of citronella, are impossible to forget.
I was lucky enough to enjoy the dish last week during my trip to the central province’s Quỳnh Đôi Village, which is home to my aunt Phan Thị Thức, 78. She said she will cook me the dish because the cold weather makes it an ideal time to enjoy.
We woke up early in the morning to go to the village market to buy snails. Thức said there are many kinds of snails but the tastiest are rice and sweet snails known locally as ốc gạo or ốc hương xào sả ớt (rice snail or sweet snail stirred with lemongrass and chilli).
We also bought other ingredients such as pandan leaves, dried onions, garlic and parsley to cook with the dish.
Thức told me that the dish is easy to cook, but very few can do it in the Nghệ An style.
“In other regions, a cook often takes the snail out of its shell and fries it, but we stirred the snail without taking out its meat.”
The most important stage is to clean the snail very carefully before stirring, to ensure hygiene.
Thức told me that the snail should usually be soaked in water overnight, to release all mud or dirt it may have out. For quicker cooking, the snail can be soaked in rice water with several hot chillis for an hour, before rubbing several tablespoons of salt into the snails to ensure it is completely clean.
All the snails are cut from the bottom and marinated with spice, lemongrass, salt, sugar and a little shrimp paste for half an hour before cooking.
Then, put a pan over a medium fire and add cooking oil, minced garlic and lemongrass and regularly stir it until a fragrant smell flies up. Then add the snails and stir lightly for 10 minutes before putting a small bowl of boiled water, mix broth and chilli in. Continue to cook for another five minutes, stirring quickly now. The last step is to put pandan leaves in and stop stirring.
Thức said each step should be correctly cooked so the snails do not lose their natural fragrance and become tough without a sweet flavour. She told me to use my mouth to pull the snail out from its shell.
It was the first time I had eaten snails this way. I thought it would be very difficult, but surprisingly, after the first try, the tasty snail was already in my mouth.
And my word! The dish was very memorable from the hot red chilli, fragrant from the lemongrass and sweet-smelling and buttery from the snails. It is more enjoyable when eaten with vermicelli, or bread dipped in its sauce.
The dish was so good I will cook it at home in Hà Nội for my family and relatives to enjoy it.
Thức said it is a favourite dish for men to enjoy with a cup of wine and friends.
“Each time I cook the dish, my husband invites his friends over. They sit around the dining table, talking cordially and exchanging views on our crops and how to raise livestock to improve our living standards.”
“The dish helps to connect our neighbourhood more closely.” VNS