Dinnertime in downtown Saigon: Snails, Gigantic Oysters and Chicken Embryo
Just had a fantastic evening out. I’d been talking to one of my Vietnamese colleagues at the school about language lessons and we’d agreed to go book shopping in downtown Saigon (commonly known as District 1). Leaving school she made a joke about eating snails for dinner and then we went off to town.
In District 1 we parked and then walked down the street to the local Fahasa bookstore. The selection of language training books was quite poor and we didn’t end up buying anything with my colleague deciding that she would have a look for a book when she returned to Hanoi for Tet (Lunar New Year) next week. Without any luck book shopping we joked about dinner and the subject of snails came up again. I’d eaten snails years ago in a French restaurant in Sydney and remembered a slightly rubbery and garlicky experience. Nonetheless I said that I was willing to try – that’s what I was in Vietnam for after all, to try new things.
She laughed as we headed off to the markets and asked if I really would try anything. I nodded, thinking she was still talking about the snails. We wandered down the main street of Dong Khoi, past the splendid hotels and Versace stores until we came to Ben Thanh Market. Outside the market we came upon a mixture of market stalls and hawker stalls the like of which you find throughout Asia. We looked at a few menus until finally we settled outside a stall with bowls of fresh seafood and snails piled up high out front.
My colleague asked again, in passing about trying food and I, still thinking about the snails and feeling all brave, said I would leave it up to her to order. She laughed and ordered. Whilst waiting for our order we chatted about her time living in Paris. I’d ordered a freshly squeezed sugarcane juice and was sipping on this when the a yellowy, vaguely egg like shape, but with spidery veins and dark bits hanging off the side, appeared before me. I recognised it at once as the half formed embryo in an egg similar to the smaller quail sized one I’d eaten the other night.
I remembered seeing a program a few years previously about bizarre foods where the presenter ate a similar thing called balut in the Philippines. I also distinctly remember at the time thinking I’d never eat something like that – not in a million years.
Well – here it was before me and actually looking at it I realised it didn’t look all that bad and certainly looked vaguely edible. My colleague laughed and refused to confirm what I was eating. I dug in and ate away. It was actually quite tasty. It was quite soft and the yolk with the accompanying sauce disguised the taste of the actually embryo which was soft and without any strong taste. Funnily enough the white of the egg was exceptionally hard and inedible. After eating my colleague confirmed that it was Trung Vit Lon aka Balut aka something we don’t ever think about eating at home.
Following our starter of Trung Vit Lon we had snails that we sucked directly out of the shells. I have to say they were quite delicious although the accompanying sauce was a slightly bland coconut, white sauce. I imagine they would be superb with a spicier sauce. The highlight of the meal were a slightly spicy, delicious shellfish in long, sugarcane like, shells. We finished off with raw oysters the size of a shoe and while I am no big oyster fan these were fresh, smooth, slightly meaty and delicious with the accompanying soy and wasabi sauce.
I would not consider myself an overly adventurous eater, something confirmed by me when my colleague talked about trying spider, the size of her hand, whilst in Cambodia. I’ll have to see if I have the courage to try that when I visit there. I did however enjoy putting my eating fate in the hands of my mischievous colleague. We had a great evening trying out, for me, new foods and chatting about travelling. After dinner we wandered the street looking through the market stalls before heading off home. All in all an absolutely memorable and enjoyable evening. Another Saigon highlight for me.