The best way to explore a culture is through its food, and my favorite thing to do when visiting Vietnam is eat my way through the many street food carts that crowd the warm city streets of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Not only is the food delicious, exotic and cheap, but trying to sit on a flimsy plastic stool that really should be for age 5 and under is all part of the experience in eating like a local.
My favorite street food snack is sea snails in spicy coconut milk (Oc Len Xao Dua). Cooked in coconut milk with fresh lemon grass, garlic, Vietnamese Coriander (Rau Ram) and chili, this dish is packed full of flavors. The fun part of the dish is extracting the snail from the shell. To extract the snail, you suck on it. Sometimes it comes out easily with one slurp. Other times you have to pucker up and take a deep long breath. If that doesn't work, I find sucking on the other end and flipping it back to the larger end helps loosen up the snail. Eating these snails without choking is all part of the fun.
Sea Snails in Coconut Milk Recipe (Oc Len Sao Dua)
1 lb fresh coned-shaped sea snails (Len Snails)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 stalks lemon grass (minced the tender white parts of one and cut the tender white parts of the other into matchsticks)
1 cup coconut milk
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup minced Vietnamese Coriander leaves (reserve a tablespoon for garnish)
1 Thai chili pepper (optional)
Soak the sea snails in water with a little bit of salt for at least 30 minutes to purge the grit and sand. Then thoroughly wash and scrub. Carefully hack off the coned end of each snail to loosen up the suction.
In a medium-sized pan, heat vegetable oil on medium high.
Add garlic and lemon grass. Saute until fragrant but not brown (2-3 minutes).
Add the sea snails and saute for 2 minutes.
Add coconut milk, salt, sugar and cook for 5 minutes to allow the snail to suck up all the saucy goodness.
Add Vietnamese Coriander leaves and Thai chili pepper.
Cook for another minute.
Garnish with fresh Coriander leaves and serve.