01/25/2013

Exotic Creatures: Dac San

Dac San (specialties) started out as a necessity rather than a luxury. Poor farmers who had little or no money at all to buy food experimented with frogs, hen (tiny clams), mother of pearl, eels, field crabs, snails and even insects found in rice paddies, lakes, ponds and rivers just to have something to nourish themselves with. Today, these common creatures can be found in five-star restaurants and served as exotic, high-end dishes.

During those days, while the farmers were tending to their crops, their children would catch these creatures, depending on what was available in the area. At home, the mothers or grandmothers would combine these with the staples or main ingredients, such as vegetables and herbs. Field crabs and snails in particular were high in nutrition which were enough to supplement their diet.

But since most of these creatures were small and not having very much meat, stewing and frying are not recommended methods of cooking since these would shrink the already tiny meat and even remove the flavor all in all. Thus, these exotic creatures are best combined and served in soups which retain their flavor. These soups often contain the traditional Vietnamese staple rice which further intensifies the flavor of the creatures. On special occasions such as Tet or weddings in fact, people do not cook them and serve them as they are, considering them a luxury worthy of such rare celebrations.

Today, these one-of-a-kind countryside dishes are considered dac san or specialties in traditional Vietnamese restaurants. Most of them are served as luxurious snacks in such establishments called chao trai (mother of pearl porridge) and chao luon (eel porridge). Herbs are also added to balance the am duong (yin and yang) of the dish. The hen, mother of pearl, eel, snail and frog are considered to be yin or cool, thus combined with warm (yang) herbs and spices such as rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), lemon grass, chili, tia to (perrila), nghe (tumeric), and rieng (galangal).

Many Vietnamese families who lived in the countryside before used to have gardens in their homes filled with herbs and spices. Thus, such plants were served as side dishes for such meals as oc nau chuoi dau (snail cooked with green banana fruit, tofu and tia to leaves), chao trai (mother of pearl porridge), canh chua hen (tiny clam soup), canh cua mong toi rau day (field crab soup with vegetable), luon om xa ot (braised eel with lemon grass and chili), or hen tron (tiny clam salad – a famous dish from Central Vietnam).

Though these exotic dishes are basically easy to cook, it takes a lot of time to do so. Shelling them is also time consuming. Soaking and washing them in the first place takes hours just to get rid of the sand inside them. Snails are kept for a day or two before cooking and then soaked in rice water in order to stay fresh. For frogs or eels, straw ash has to be used to clean them.

But a lot of things have changed since the creatures were discovered as food. Before, preparing them was a family affair. Today, you can buy processed hen, frog, snail and field crabs in the supermarket which is easier and faster to cook. However, from time to time, Vietnamese still prepare the exotic creatures the traditional way, in order to preserve traditions and spend quality family time together, even just on weekends and special occasions.