A steaming hot soup with the red of tomato and the smell of fried spring onion, coupled with the fatness of stuffed snails and the sweetness of helix snails, is a common order customers place for Tuyet, the owner of a shop on Hang Chinh street, to prepare.
A snail is spiraled out along with a layer of thick wax, accompanied by the subtle smell of thickened vinegar, with stewed chilli paste and raw herbs added. And customers find it hard to resist the temptation while lavishing praise on the flavour.
It seems that it must be in Hanoi that you can taste the best bun oc (rice vermicelli with sweet snail). The common dish has gone through the nimble hands of grandmothers, aunts and young ladies in the capital city to become an exotic mouth-watering specialty that you cannot find anywhere else.
Tuyet on Hang Chinh, Hue on Dang Dung, another Hue on Nguyen Sieu, Xuan on O Quan Chuong, Giang on Luong Ngoc Quyen – which was once visited by the host of the Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown – and Them on Hang Chai, and more, are familiar restaurants for those who can’t help falling in love with the dish.
How to make a tasty bowl of bun oc?
A well-known restaurant for residents in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, Hue’s bun oc on Nguyen Sieu street, is located in a modest space, to the point that passersby could easily miss. But that is only the case for amateurs, while for gourmets, just upon arriving on the street, their eyes will eagerly search for the woman sitting close to a door, about 50 years old yet resourceful and quick with her hands to pick the right amount of rice vermicelli and pour the soup into the bowls. Hue has become a family member of many customers.
Revealing her know-how, she said the most important thing for a delicious bowl of bun oc lies in the quality of thickened vinegar. To buy the good vinegar that goes well with bun oc, she has to look all over of the northern province of Bac Ninh, adding that the good vinegar still maintains the smell of sticky rice as well as its own subtle sweetness.
With good thickened vinegar, the soup will be done by creating a mixture between the vinegar and the broth collected from the water used to boil snails. It could be used for both hot and cool bun oc.
For the cool type, the soup must be clear so that eaters could see snails at the bottom of the bowl. Chilli paste should be hot enough to honour the subtle flavour of vinegar and neutralise the “coldness” of snails.
For the steaming hot type, the soup is cooked with simmered tomatoes and boiled with low fire for the whole day. It requires a special technique so that the soup will have the bright red colour of tomatoes and the smell of thickened vinegar and snail.
Stories behind bun oc bowls
The dish sounds simple to make, but it is not easy to cook a perfect bowl of bun oc. Just the preparation for the ingredients needs efforts and hard work.
Each bun oc vendor needs to prepare right from the previous day’s evening, starting with boiling, pulling out each snail and creating the soup for the whole day.
In the past, vendors had to comb streets looking for customers. Hue was hired by an old lady, then she had her own and has been keeping the job, selling bun oc on the streets for 30 years. She has settled down at the current location for nearly five years.
Now bun oc is a familiar dish with Hanoians. There are still street vendors like Giang on Luong Ngoc Quyen street, while there are many others with plastic stools and tiny spaces like Hue on Nguyen Sieu street, and those next to each other by Ho Tay (West Lake). And bun oc is even served at five-star hotels and famous buffet restaurants.
Bun oc is a vital part of the gastronomy of Kinh Ky (former name of Hanoi)./.