Thirty-four years is a long time in the snail noodle soup business. And given the obscure location of Aunty Lan's bún ốc, it's no wonder it's taken me 11 years to find it; nestled away in Hanoi's labyrinthine alleys in the southern suburbs and just out of the shadow of the high rise developments of the main arterial roads there. The route - a puzzling series of right-angled turns and straights, all of which have to be remembered in reverse if one is to ever see the light of day again - takes me past that generic Hanoi mixed business lane-scape of one-chair hairdressers, tea stands, tailors stretching leopard-skin polyester over sewing machines, and grease sheened boys tinkering in repair shops. Retired men in pyjamas promenade up and down. At one point I look up to a roof top 'installation' of dozens of metal washing machine cabinets, all obviously thrown up there. I take a mental note of the odd stuff to plan a passage out.
Known to the local neighbourhood and the student population of the nearby university precinct, this shaded courtyard beside a chemical blue-milk canal is an old-world oasis of Hanoi food gold. And I'm kind of loath to give the secret away. But I will do so because we are talking snails; clearly not an imperative on most people's 'must-eat-food' list. These are very large snails pried out of cavernous shells, snails with a full scope of textures in the mouth - provided by bits called mantel flap, opercular lobe, inhalent siphon, penis and eye. Chewy and slimy are two obvious words that come to mind though I suspect that English lacks the range of lexis required to give meaning to all of the actions and sensations induced by eating snails.
I may not have the language but I have acquired the skill set; not necessarily to enjoy them but to get them down efficiently.
These snails come as only one ingredient in a striking bowl of colour and flavour. Red is imparted by tomato wedges continuously added to the simmering stock, one or two ladled into each serve. The rich scarlet dollop of rice on the surface of the soup is achieved by reducing tomatoes with rice in a process not much different to making risotto. A saucepan of it is part of Aunty Lan's mise en place. Yellow is there too in the form of turmeric stained tofu. A purple spot of mắm tôm (fermented shrimp paste) floats for a moment before being swirled through the soup with chopsticks, adding an indefinable depth of flavour. Green is always present in Vietnam's noodle soups with scatterings of herbs added by the vendor and the customer at table. Here, Aunty Lan is generous with dill and spring onions and I pick Vietnamese mint, lemon balm and lettuce from the communal salad plate. And all this colour in pink crockery!
Fresh vermicelli noodles, green bananas (chuối xanh) and crab paste (gạch cua) bulk up the dish. The snails are prominent without being dominant, augmented by the confluence of the many other ingredients. I eat them with respect. I eat them complemented in my mouth by the those other ingredients.
I eat them in an unsophisticated ambience amongst drying clothes, bicycles with flat tyres, pot plants where weeds are more prolific than the original plant - in family territory, where the student patrons treat Aunty Lan like...well...an aunt. An old gentleman customer tells his grandaughter that he has been eating bún ốc in these surroundings for 30 years.
Aunty Lan is a proud and gracious hostess, very interested that I'm interested in her bowl of noodles. She says she's been on the TV before and sets about telling me of one of the other dishes she serves up; a stew of snails, green bananas and turmeric stained tofu (ốc nấu chuối đậu), it can be eaten with vermicelli noodles, rice or simply as drinking food, picked at with chopsticks between slugs of Vietnam's rice wine, rượu.
Politely, I decline. Negotiating my way out from this clandestine snail house is going to be trouble enough without the potent influence of rượu. This is on reserve for a return visit.