Lunch at a Snail's Pace
Americans can be real weenies when it comes to food. We like our meat, but can't stand it to look like an actual dead animal, and have to mince it into patties, or cut it into squares for breading and deep-frying. We'll only eat squid if you don't call it what it actually is, using instead the Italian word “calamari.” And when it comes to snails – we'll deal with them at French restaurants; just be sure you only call them “escargot.”
I've always wanted to try snails, but in the French serving style they tend to be drenched in butter, and believe it or not...I don't like butter. Thus the only snails I've ever had are periwinkles, sea-snails.
So when I saw that the Asian Gardens mall had three different kinds of snails, none of 'em buttery looking, I couldn't wait to chow down.
Contrary to popular belief, I don't like eating stuff just because it's “gross.” I wouldn't eat hair or drink cow semen like Tom Green and the Jackass crew have done, respectively. But I do like to try stuff that's completely off-the-map by American standards, but part of the regular diet somewhere else. And I do confess that I haven't been particularly fond of the insect-based dishes I've had – bugs tend to have a stale-seeming texture that isn't too appealing.
Anyway, I ordered all three types of snails, which, not being a gourmand or Vietnamese food expert, I don't know the exact names of, so I'll henceforth refer to them as “big-ass,” “spiral,” and “mini.” The food court also had balut on offer, so of course I had to try that – a hard-boiled fertilized egg with duck fetus inside. The sign advertising it has a demonstrative cartoon drawing of a baby chick hatching, which is the bird equivalent of putting a drawing of a smiling baby on the logo of an abortion clinic.
The balut was super-hot (not spicy, just hot), so I saved that for last, and attacked the big-ass snails first. Toothpicks are the implements of choice here, though you can get a spoon to sip up the sauce afterwards, which for the big-ass snails is heavy on the garlic. It takes some practice to get the snail-removal technique just right – pulling them out will give you the main snail body, but if you want the guts of the thing that are buried deep in there, you have to be gentle. And it's worth it, too. These snails taste more or less like clams, which isn't too surprising, if you think about it. Unlike with clams, though, I would not want to eat these sashimi-style.
The spiral snails have openings in the top of their shells, and are a bit small for the toothpicks, so it seemed like the only way to eat these was to try and suck 'em out the top of the shell. They're not bad tasting, but – gross stuff warning ahead – it's hard to be delicate here: some of them are slimy. You can suck the snail out, put the shell back, then look down and realize there's still a mucousy strand of snail goo running from mouth to shell. It doesn't taste bad, but yeah, it's slime. Not a pleasant sensation in the mouth. The coconut broth these shells are in is the best of the sauces, though.
Several Vietnamese people approached me while I was enjoying my invertebrate feast, most of them genuinely surprised that I would order such things. One guy offered the helpful warning that the mini-snails would be the hardest to get out, and he was right. They were. And once attained, they had kind of a gritty texture, too, like these snails had eaten a lot of dirt in their brief lifetimes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the minis came with the most external flavoring – a chili garlic sauce for cooking, and a sweet chili dipping sauce that drowned out all snail flavor.
I recommend the big-ass snails. Not sure I'll partake in the other varieties again.
And then the balut, which is served with spicy green leaves of some kind, plus seasoned salt. The taste is about what you might imagine – hard boiled egg yolk plus a liquidy meat that melts in the mouth and has a rich flavor. But you might not want to look too carefully, lest you see the underdeveloped eyes, beak and feathers in there somewhere.
Does that sound disturbing? Every meat you eat has eyes, mouth, and all the rest at some point. I'm willing to look that hard truth in the face and accept it. Everyone else who chooses not to be vegetarian should do the same. And if you still want to eat meat after thinking about that, balut is delicious.
ADDENDUM: Reader Bradley J. Fikes rightly points out that drinking cow semen is "udderly impossible." I was using the term "cow" generically, but of course it's inherently female, and only bulls make semen. I regret the error.