Snails

Luosi

Flavor: Reddish-Brown: Other

The French are not the only people who have discovered the glorious affinity between the lowly snail and the mighty garlic. In the heart of downtown Taipei, there were a few narrow streets full of tiny restaurants that featured the Chinese equivalent of short-order cooking. Foods already prepared were temptingly displayed in large containers in the front windows. Snails were always among the most attractive items, and for a few cents you could get a bowl of them covered with a lovely, garlicky sauce. We rarely resisted them, when we had time. The snails were tiny and not very filling, and it was a frustrating business trying to pull them out of their shells with toothpicks. But those that we succeeded in spearing were as delicious as the sauce that we invariably spattered all over our hands, arms, and shirtfronts during the removal process. When prepared in the Szechwanese way with garlic, ginger, and a chivelike vegetable called jiucai, a Chinese snail rivals anything that Burgundy can produce.

Chinese snails are smaller than French ones. In this country, Mrs. Chiang uses periwinkles. They are difficult to find; even in Chinatown they are only sporadically available. Once you buy them, you must soak them in water with a little bit of oil for several days to get the sand out of them. But after that they are not hard to cook. Mrs. Chiang’s recipe for snails is so delicious that it would be criminal not to sample it merely because of the unavailability of the main ingredient. You might experiment with mussels if you can’t get periwinkles. Jiucai is another problem; it is seasonal and often unavailable in those Chinese markets that do sell it. Fortunately, scallions are an acceptable substitute.

Eating snails (or periwinkles) is as great a challenge as finding them in the first place. Provide a good supply of toothpicks for snaring them and put out an empty plate for the empty shells. The process is bound to be messy, for it can’t be done without using your fingers.

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Method

Preparation

1 quart periwinkles or mussels Allow 3 days between the time you purchase the periwinkles and the time you are going to cook them. It takes that long to get rid of all the sand inside the shells.

4 cups cold water, approximately

A few drops peanut oil

Put the periwinkles in a large bowl, cover them with cold water, and add a few drops of oil. Let them sit at room temperature for 3 days. Change the water every day, each time rinsing the periwinkles well under running water and adding new oil. (For some reason, the oil forces the periwinkles to regurgitate the sand they have swallowed.) By the third day, they will be completely free of sand and ready to be cooked.

Rinse the periwinkles thoroughly and pick them over to get rid of any small stones masquerading as periwinkles. Drain the periwinkles and set them aside.

3 bunches jiucai or scallions If using the jiucai, pick it over and pull off both ends of each stalk. Wash the jiucai carefully, then cut it into ½-inch lengths. If using scallions, clean them, then cut them, both white part and green, into ½-inch lengths.
1 whole head of garlic (about 10 to 12 cloves) Smash the garlic cloves with the flat side of your cleaver, then peel. Chop the garlic into pieces about the size of grains of uncooked rice.
3-inch piece fresh ginger Peel the ginger, then chop it into the same size pieces as the garlic; you should get about 3 tablespoons of each.

Cooking

6 tablespoons peanut oil Heat your wok or pan over a high flame for 20 seconds, then pour in the oil. It will be ready to cook with when the first tiny bubbles form and a few small wisps of smoke appear.
(garlic and ginger) When the oil is ready, toss in the garlic and ginger and stir-fry vigorously for 45 seconds, using your cooking shovel or spoon to agitate the garlic and ginger around in the bottom of the pan so they don’t burn.

(periwinkles)

1-½ tablespoons salt

Then add the periwinkles and the salt. Stir-fry for about 1 minute, scooping the periwinkles off the sides of the pan and making sure everyone is exposed to the hot oil.

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

(jiucai)

3 tablespoons soy sauce

½ cup water

½ cup Chinese rice wine or cooking sherry

Add the sugar and stir-fry all the ingredients for about 1-½ minutes, then add the jiucai and the soy sauce and continue to stir-fry for another 1-½ minutes.

Pour in the water and the wine and wait until the liquid boils, then cover the pan and let the periwinkles cook over the same high heat for 7 minutes. Serve immediately, making sure you provide plenty of napkins and a container for the empty shells.

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