It can be all too easy to stick to your culinary comfort zone in Shanghai, be it KFC or gōngbǎo jīdīng. As a challenge to break these habits and avoid the rut, every few weeks Shanghaiist will explore one of the more intriguing options out of China’s endless array of curious cookery. Although bizarre to most Western palates, these oft-avoided edibles usually boast unique medicinal properties, nutritional benefits, and intriguing culinary histories. We’ll explore for you where they came from and where you can sample these rare eats for yourselves.
YELLOW MUD SNAIL (黄泥螺, huáng ní luó)
Regions of use: China (Ningbo, Shanghai, other coastal areas)
Tasted at: Chang Jiao Hai Xian (长脚海鮮) // 429 Pingliang Lu, Tongbei Lu (平凉429路, 近通北路) // Closest metro stop: Yangshupu Road (杨树浦路) Line 4
With a pale, gelatinous body that dwarfs its shell, a live yellow mud snail looks more like a glob of jelly with a skullcap than like your typical garden snail. It’s name, which comes from the yellowish mud flats of Ningbo where it abounds, didn’t exactly stir the appetite either. But neither did “hairy crab,” “this chicken has no sexual experience,” or names of other Chinese eats I now enjoy, so I gave it an escar-go.
Culinary history/medicinal properties
Historical documents show that the mud snail was first eaten by coastal Chinese in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). However, it only became popularized in Shanghai 50 years ago by Ningbo immigrants who had brought the snails with them during a massive immigration wave. In fact, many Shanghaiers today keep containers of snails preserved in salty sauce or yellow wine. They enjoy both their flavor and their reputed benefits to the eyes, kidney, lungs, and liver that come from the minerals in the mud they inhabit. Consuming them with wine is also said to help prevent TB and laryngitis.
Where to get them
Live yellow mud snails
Most mud snails in Shanghai come salted and/or preserved in yellow wine in jars or cans. For live ones, you have to hit up Tongchuan Road or our favorite depot, Chang Jiao Hai Xian, a down-home seafood eatery on Tongbei Lu offering every sea eat from cuttle fish eggs to geoduck. You pick your live snails from one of the fish tanks and choose to have them cooked in soup, served drunken with yellow wine, or probably the tastiest method, stir fried. Though raw and drunken is more in the spirit of this column, not only do they taste overly salty in our mind, but eating raw seafood can be hazardous in this increasingly warm weather.
For stir-frying, they’re doused with salt so they expel their water and shrink drastically in size like a grape shriveling into a raisin, and then tossed about with chilies, onions, soy, and other seasonings. They’re served shell-on like mussels.
After polishing off a plate, we surmised that the biggest turn-off to expats isn’t the name nor globular appearance when live. It’s that they’re freaking tiny! Each shell is as small and brittle as the nail on your pinky finger, and houses less meat than a hermit crab claw. You have to first tease the flesh nub out with your teeth, and then discard that black speck of digestive tract, a task so tedious we eventually gave up and scarfed them bad bits and all. After an hour of gold-panning-like sifting and dissecting, the meat we ate amounted to less than several clams worth.
But we’d be lying if we told you that these weren’t the tastiest snails we’ve ever had. Brinier and tenderer than most clams, these guys beat out escargot, pork-stuffed river snails, or those little river periwinkles. Just bring friends along so it doesn’t take you an hour to finish the plate, and order plenty of other dishes so you won’t leave hungry.
Live yellow mud snail (left) dwarfs cooked ones (right)
Big flavor in a small package. Yellow mud snails are at their peak deliciousness now so get them while you can.
Last time on Off the Beaten Palate: Live drunken shrimp
See a complete list of our Off the Beaten Palate series here.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].