The French call it escargots and the Romans have had a significant history in consuming it in their diet. Snails have long been part of menus around the globe and it is no different here, in the Kingdom of Wonder.
A sought-after delicacy, snails have had their place in the Cambodian diet since ancient times and it sure seems like they are not going anywhere soon.
According to the locals, snails were once deemed a poor man’s food. However, after the Khmer Rouge, snails slowly became one of the main sources of protein for Cambodians, as resources were really limited then. Over the years, snails glided their way to becoming a delicacy for all, thanks to a variation of cooking styles that popped up.
Known in Khmer as Khyang, the delicacy can be found along the streets as vendors push their carts filled with these edible gastropods, ready to be consumed on-the-go.
The locals often attribute the consumption of the gastropods to positive health benefits, on the main belief that they can strengthen joints.
While many Cambodians head to the lakes or other popular spots enroute to Bassat Mountain to enjoy this cuisine, it is a little known fact that Phnom Penh serves its fair share of delectable snails as well.
Having been around for over three years, one particular store has fetched quite the attention from both the locals and expatriates.
Located along Street 402, just a stone’s throw from the Vanda Institute, Virak Soy’s 3Skills is known to serve stir-fried snails and grilled snails with his special gravy. The 3Skills name of his store attributes its ‘sold-out’ success to the three cooking methods he specialises in: the sauce, marinate and stir-fry.
Growing up, Virak himself initially thought snails were not really appetising despite being
surrounded by those who loved eating it while growing up. However, his curiosity to give it a try has now led him to teaching others who stop by his restaurant to eat them.
Virak’s special gravy, which the gastropods are often served in, compliments the dish well enough with a mixture of sweet and spicy feel to it. His method of preparing the snails results in the right amount of chewy texture, taking on the myth by those not adventurous enough who think that snails might be too rubbery to consume.
His style of cooking it with the signature gravy is almost like no other, especially as most restaurants in the capital still believe in the traditional method of boiling them.
One might assume that Virak’s specialty comes from toying around with recipes involving snails, however it was the other way round. The restaurant’s original star is the family’s sauce called the Koh Kong sauce, a variation of the garlic chili sauce.
Virak then wanted to pair the sauce with a unique choice of delicacy that was still considered as normal consumption among the Cambodians. Hence, he decided to pair his sauce with snails.
Using only paddyfield and freshwater snails, Virak’s ingredients hail from both Kampong Chhnang and Kampong Cham, which are then sprayed with a high-powered hose and later is soaked for a whole day.
The process is to clean the mud out and Virak’s staff ensures the water used to soak the snails is changed up to three times a day.
While his customers are mostly Khmers, word of mouth among the expat community has raked in quite a bit of attention from them as well.
Charlie Chun, a new regular at Virak’s, said a bite of snails is to be chased down with a swig of beer to savour the dish. The chilled Singha beer ($1.25) that Virak touts, “cools down the spicy gravy”.
His customers are often frequent diners, not only for the dish but also due to Virak’s warm personality. Many commend him for getting to know his customers well enough and as Virak said, “The only way to keep them is to know them.”
If you are not adventurous enough, there are other options to pick from including grilled chicken, marinated pork ribs, beef with stir-fried Khmer watercress and cockles fried with lemon.
3Skills sells its stir-fried snails at $2 per plate which serves a good portion that will surely satisfy your taste buds.
Being one of his bestsellers, Virak sells between 300-400kg of snails daily. While 3Skills is open daily from 4pm till 11pm, his stir-fried and grilled snails are usually sold out after 9pm.