Mr. P has been telling me about eating hoi khom (หอยขม), or snails, for the longest time. Whenever we pass by a stall selling snails in Bangkok, he would say, “Oh, how I miss the snails made by my mum!” But when I requested to taste them, he would turn me down, citing safety reasons. “You don’t know where these snails come from. They may be laden with pesticides. Let’s get my mum to make them the next time we’re home,” he urged.
Curious about the gastropods, I made Mr. P tell his mum that I would like to try her snail specialty prior to our latest visit to Udon. When we arrived, MIL announced that she had gone foraging for snails in a family plot, and had cleaned, scrubbed and washed these shells thoroughly. She really put in a lot of efforts to cook her son’s favourite dishes.
For our first meal in Udon, MIL served up a big bowl of keng om hoi (แกงอ่อมหอย), snails simmered in a thick, tangy broth of local leaves and roasted rice powder. Everyone waited in anticipation if I would take to this dish. Mr. P instructed me to remove the oval “door lid” (operculum)—somewhat like the snail’s personal trapdoor—hold the shell with its exposed opening near my mouth and suck hard. The meat slid out of its shell and popped into my mouth. The meat tasted slightly rubbery—similar to squid—but with more earthy tones. Very soon, I was hard at kissing the snails, and a pool of empty shells and lids collected on my plate. At the end of the meal, my belly was filled to the brim with snail meat and air inhaled from sucking the shells.
A few days later, MIL prepared another
big bowl bucket of hoi khom for lunch. Eager to savour the gastropodus meat once again, I picked a shell and sucked hard at it. Nothing came out so I repeated my efforts, using my might to suck the shell. By now everyone, including the neighbours joining us for lunch—for meals are communal affairs in Isaan—were giggling.
“Nooooo, you don’t eat it this way,” Mr. P said, while trying to control his laughter.
“Huh?” I uttered, totally confused by the do’s and don’t’s of snail eating in Isaan. “But wasn’t that how we ate a few days ago?”
“Yes, but today’s snails don’t have their butts chopped off, so there’s no opening at the tip to create the suction when you suck the shell,” Mr. P explained. “Instead you’ll need a stick to pry the contents out.”
And so I committed a faux pas again, the result of not observing my food before eating them. No wonder Mr. P’s family, relatives and neighbours at Udon are always tickled by me at meal times because they love to see my reactions upon eating ‘weird’ food. I have a fairly adventurous palate, so snails aren’t that weird or gross for me. Everyone soon said they had enough of the snails—but I think that’s because they wanted me to finish them since I seemed to enjoy myself—leaving Mr. P and I to wipe out the entire bucket. We probably devoured at least 50 snails each for that particular meal.
It’s cute that these small creatures have brought me and MIL a bit closer. During Mr. P’s phone calls back home, I will ask him to tell his mum that I miss her snails. And on the other end, she replies, “I miss Xin’s bak kut teh.”
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Several years ago, a popular Thai luuk thung song captured the snail-eating ritual of Thailand’s northeast, as well as the typical friendly, boisterous nature of the Isaan people. Watch this MV!