On the plastic tabletop a dozen sauce-streaked plates sit between three mounds of empty snail shells. Beer cans float on rivulets of melted ice. Crusty breadcrumbs fall like snowflakes as hunks of baguette are torn away to mop up the sauces.
My T-shirt and toes are spattered with tamarind, lime, chilli, coconut and lemongrass. The floor around my chair 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; all over the country hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese are out enjoying ‘Shell Tapas’!
Ăn ốc – snail eating – 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. It’s something between tapas and bar culture in the West, but neither of these do justice to the scale of indulgence and conviviality of Vietnamese nhậu. There’s a frenetic buzz to snail eating (always accompanied by beer) which is intoxicating and complete. I like to call it ‘Total Dining’.
VIDEO: eating snails at Ốc Đào in Saigon
Snails of all shapes and sizes come from Vietnam’s fresh water sources – flooded rice paddies, rivers and lakes – and from the East Sea (South China Sea). Quán ốc don’t only serve snails: anything that comes in a shell is on the menu. You’ll find clams, oysters, cockles, mussels, scallops, shrimp and other shellfish you’ve probably never seen before. And there’s beer too: sometimes you’ll get bia hơi – ‘fresh beer’ – often brewed on the premises and extremely cheap (and weak), or you’ll find the local favourite of whichever province you happen to be in (Sài Gòn beer, Hà Nội beer, Huda beer from Huế, and many more), as well as regional giants such as Tiger Beer from Singapore.
SNAILS AND SHELLFISH COME IN ALL SHAPES AND SIZES - THE VARIETY IS PART OF THE FUN OF 'SNAIL EATING'.
Snail eating has been around for a long time in Vietnam, and I’m happy to say there’s no sign of it diminishing in popularity in these rapidly changing and youthful times for the country. Quán ốc are usually packed with twenty-somethings digging into shells with tiny forks and wiping sauce from their mouths between bursts of conversation. One reason for the enduring popularity of snails is that they are such great beer food. Snails naturally come in small, bite-sized morsels, and because you have to negotiate the shell in order to get to the meat you can’t simply consume a plate in a few mouthfuls – as you might a plate of chips, for example. This imposes a nice rhythm and tempo to snail eating that seems to encourage conviviality; pluck one from its shell, chew, swallow, wash it down with a sip of cold beer, have a chat with your friend and then repeat the process. Peanuts and a pint in a pub don’t come close! Over the course of an evening you slowly fill up with good food and drink, but never feel bloated.