by Kiều Trinh
Hòa Bình Province is endowed with diverse terrain, with hills, rivers and lakes dotted across the landscape. There is no shortage of delicious food that once tried is hard to forget, and one of those dishes is mountain snail papaya salad with bold flavours of the northwest mountainous region.
Local people believe that mountain snails are a highly medicinal food because they eat herbs. — VNS Photo Kiều Trinh
When the rainy season arrives, it is time for people to harvest fresh natural products from the mountains and forests. They often go searching for snails at night or in the early morning. The snails are washed and steamed, and then shaken to make the flesh easier to access. The flesh is then mixed with green papaya and herbs such as coriander, mint and sawtooth, and then seasoned to taste. According to Lò Thị Phương, the young owner of Meadow Mai Chau Homestay, the most difficult part about making the dish is steaming the snail. “Snails must be steamed until cooked. If they are overcooked, they become chewy and lose their flavour. And of course, raw snails are no good,” she said.
Removing the snails from their shells requires dexterity and care. — VNS Photo Minh Phương
The seasoning is also a key factor that determines customer satisfaction. The aroma of the herbs and chilli helps to mask the slight smell of the marshes where the snails are founds, and enhances the crispy fat. “This dish has a harmony of salty, sweet, sour and spicy flavours. The snail flesh is crispy and sweet, with the strange tangy taste of medicinal herbs that my mother uses to serve my grandparents,” said Hoang Ngoc Anh from the Goethe Institute after enjoying the dish.
The snails eat leaves, mainly herbs that grow wild in the mountains, so local people believe they are very nutritious. “A long time ago, our ancestors realised that mountain snails were not poisonous and ate many herbs, so they started eating them. We believe that the snails are very nutritious. My mother said that this type of snail is not only delicious, but also has a very good analgesic effect”, Phương said. That's why when people prepare dishes using mountain snails, they only wash them roughly to retain their medicinal value.
Mountain snail papaya salad is a local creation. This dish is usually prepared for special meals when guests can enjoy sumptuous array of food including pork, beef and chicken. It has the effect of heightening the appetite despite overindulgent feasting, and encourages heavy drinking.
Mountain snails can also be cooked in many other diverse dishes, including grilled snails with banana leaves and fried snails with lemongrass or tamarind.
Mountain snails can only be gathered during the rainy season. VNS Photo Kiều Trinh
It is not always possible to enjoy this specialty because the snails only crawl out to eat and breed in the rainy season. The rest of the time, they bury themselves underground or in thick layers of leaves or crevices.
When the dark clouds gather, signalling the rain is coming, it is time for them to find food. Snails often gather in humid places with standing water and herbs. They are picky about their habitat, so they like to live in places with similar conditions. This makes it easier to find them in large numbers.
If you find yourself in Hoà Bình during the rainy season, as luck would have it, this is the dish to try. — VNS