"Freshwater snails around Qingming Festival taste even better than fattened geese." As the old saying goes, river snails taste the best in early April before their spawning season.
Located at Jiangcheng Road, Xiaowanzhan(小碗盏), a local restaurant that has run for decades, is selected as the "King of river snail dishes" by "Hangzhou Gourmet's Choice," a WeChat account run by City Express.
"As the snail flesh lacks flavor, it is usually fried with soy sauce or hearty broth. We also use Sichuan boiled fish condiments to make it spicy," said Yu Jun, the owner of Xiaowanzhan.
The chefs in Xiaowanzhan choose the wild olive-green-shelled snails, which are fleshy under their thick shells. The soy-bean sauce, spicy flavored sauce, and fresh snail flesh are finger-licking good. However, sucking out the meat is a technical and challenging skill.
"Removing the end of the spiral shell is the secret of sucking the flesh out," said Yu. In the past, people used to cut off this part of the shells with scissors, but now machines take their places.
"If you find a snail that it is really difficult to suck out its meat, you may try to suck the end with a smaller hole to stuff the shell really tight, the tighter the easier it is to get the flesh out," Yu added.
On April 6, three Hangzhou expats joined Hangzhoufeel to visit the restaurant.
Stir-fried snails and soy-sauce braised snails with bullfrogs are two popular dishes especially among those who do not like spicy food.
Stir-fried snail has long been a traditional home-made dish in Hangzhou, sometimes bullfrog is a popular ingredient.
"I'm a big fan of Luosifen(Chinese:螺蛳粉, rice noodles with river snails), but regretfully there are only river snails without a shell in it. I never imagined that it could be this hard to suck the meat out of the shells. I only succeeded once or twice," said Ana Zupan from Slovenia,"it was very thoughtful of the restaurant owner to prepare toothpicks for us beginners."
"The river snails are much smaller than those commonly seen in European vineyards, making it hard to eat. We had so much fun trying to do it well!" Lili from Poland agreed.
"It wasn't my first time having fresh river snails, but it was the first time sucking it out from a shell," Lusungu Mwazikani Phiri from Zambia was also full of curiosity.
Naturally, a competition was posed to test the three expats—eating snails.
With the help of toothpicks, Lili and Ana Zupan successfully ate five river snails in one minute, and Lusungu ate four.
Besides the freshwater snail dishes, the sweet fermented rice with walnuts was much liked by the three. The vinasse is made of red yeast rice, which is used to make Hongqu Jiu (红曲酒, a rice liquor). And Xiaowanzhan is the only restaurant in Hangzhou that uses this kind of vinasse for the dessert.
Two seasonal vegetables kalimeris indica and bamboo shoots were also served. "I just wish spring were longer so that we could eat such dishes for a longer time!" exclaimed Ana Zupan.