Snails, Emma Arnold
I’ve had my fair share of unfamiliar food on homestays. I have gnawed chicken feet, chewed on small and bony fish, eaten unidentifiable vegetables, even tried soup garnished with ant eggs. So last week, when I found myself faced with the prospect of snails for dinner, I was not fazed.
For the past week I had the pleasure of living with a family in the village of Kudchun in northeastern Thailand. The family I stayed with were subsistence organic farmers, and for the most part what was produced on their farm was what they ate.
Every day around midafternoon, our host mother would start to prepare a feast of a dinner for the family. Generally, preparation and cooking took hours. Even more impressively, she did it all in an outdoor kitchen that amounted to little more than a small shack on a raised platform. Everything was cooked over a wood fire in heavy metal pots and pans. Her cutting board was a smoothed slice of tree stump, her spices hung in small plastic bags from the rafters, and the entire place was frequently overrun with groups of the incredibly free-range farm chickens.
This particular afternoon, I wandered over to the kitchen to find my host mother, Ma Maow, whacking at something with a large metal cleaver. Unsure what she was doing, I pointed at what was on the cutting board and asked in Thai; “What is this?”
She responded; “huay taak”. I looked closer. Huay taak. Snails.
To be perfectly honest, the prospect of eating snails for dinner was rather exciting. Watching my host mother hack them in half with her cleaver was impressive. As they went into a pot with all sorts of vegetables, fish balls, and noodles, it smelled delicious. So when we sat down to eat, I was disappointed to find that my bowl of soup was markedly snail-less.
My disappointment, however, was incredibly short lived. No more than minutes after I had dug into my soup (which was even more delicious than it smelled) Maa Maow returned with another platter of food. And in the center of the tray was the largest bowl of snails I had ever seen in my life. Admittedly, it was the first bowl of snails I had seen in my life. But this does not discount the fact that it was nothing short of monumental.
Noticing my wide eyes and following my gaze, my host father plucked a snail from the bowl and pointed at it with raised eyebrows. I nodded vigorously. He handed me a toothpick.
“How…?” I started to say in Thai.
He laughed, and grabbed a snail himself. In less than half a second he had pried the insides out, popped it into his mouth, and smiled. “A roi”, he said, delicious.
Three minutes later, I managed to wrestle the snail out of its shell.
Here’s the deal with boiled snails; they are small. They are ridiculously chewy. They taste exactly how one would expect a snail to taste. Not great, not bad, just… snaily. I was quite pleased that I was able to chew and swallow my first snail, but was by no means in any hurry to repeat the experience.
My host father had different plans. He plucked my toothpick up off the table and proceeded to start prying snails out of their shells and handing them to me in quick succession.
As a student on homestays, one quickly learns that it is important to find the delicate balance between appeasing your host family and acting in your own interest. Often, one will do something a little outside of their comfort zone for the sake of not offending their host family.
And so that night, sitting out with my host family surrounded by the farm chickens and the warm night air, I ate more snails than I ever wish to consume again. As I popped each additional one in my mouth promising myself that it would be my last, I could not help but smile. Not only was I able to push myself to do something that I would never do in a more familiar context, but I was willing to keep eating snails with my host family because this was something that was special to them and they wanted to share with me. And I, as their guest, was happy to oblige.