When being asked by Word Editor, Nick Ross, on which dishes are my favorite so that he can put my pick-up into May Issue cover story, oc luoc and bo bia immediately spring to my mind. How about you? What are your favorite?
As the smallest child in a family of good cooks, I soon became a judge of their dishes. My favorite ‘chef’ during my childhood was my grandma, who always presented her dishes with stories that made me excited. Oc luoc — boiled snails — was one of my favourites.
Every time she made the dish, she told me how she, like many other countryside ladies, patiently culled snails from paddy fields or small ponds around the villages. To me in those days, the snails she brought home were more love than food. Nothing could express the excitement in my eyes when sitting by the old-styled charcoal oven, waiting for the snails to be ready.
Nowadays, oc luoc is usually transported from the provinces to the bustling city. To me, it’s one of the tangible links between city life and the peaceful villages far away.
I prefer street corner eateries, where I can enjoy oc luoc slowly and wait for the boiling snails on the oven, which makes me feel like home. I often head for a small stand in the corner of a yard of an old, French-style building, where two middle-aged ladies sell oc luoc every afternoon. Only after diners order will they soak the snails and boil them on the old charcoal oven.
Once ready, the snails will be plated with dipping sauce, which is very hard to make perfect, a blend of sugar, kumquat, ginger and citronella. The strong flavours combine with the gentleness of the freshwater snails to create a tenderly sweet and pure taste.
Every time I eat snails, I drink the water used to boil the snails. According to my grandma, it helps to prevent a stomachache.
My recommendation for delicious Oc luoc is Oc Trang @1 Dinh Liet or Oc Chi Le @ Phan Dinh Phung street.
For those who attended school in the 1980s like myself, things were far different. Instead of sitting at KFC, Burger King or a polished-glass window café, our rituals were gathering at the school gates and buying cheap snacks.
Like many other girls, bo bia ngot was my favourite. Now it’s making a comeback. A few years ago, I was happy to see peddlers starting to sell bo bia ngot on Hanoi’s Thanh Nien Street. Nowadays, a lot vendors stand on the street side, with a white box on their bike, selling this old-time student snack.
I love buying bo bia ngot from a man who often stands near the restaurant Banh Tom Ho Tay. He seems to be the only male peddler selling it on the street. “We are all living in the same village,” he told me. “Leaving our hometown, we share slum-dog apartments near Hanoi and sell this every day. I stand here from morning until 11pm at night.”
The first time I stopped my bike, I was impressed by this man’s appearance. He has a very gentle smile. He makes me think of poor labourers in the countryside. Every time I come back, I notice happiness and a smile in his eyes. I keep coming back.
It’s not a big deal when I buy one bo bia ngot (they’re VND5,000 each), but this man’s smiles make me feel happy about life. Every week, I give myself one moment of buying bo bia ngot, eating the wrapper in bites, enjoying the sweet taste of old times. I chat with the bo bia seller, enjoying the lake view among the people mingling on the bustling street.
You can find delicious bo bia ngot sold by many vendors along Thanh Nien Street, Tay Ho, Hanoi