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A Three Way with Snails

It is a wet Saturday out, the kind of day where one would normally be dodging snails underfoot. Instead, I am seated at Telok Ayer Arts Club with fellow strangers, all present for the gastronomic extension of artist Taiwanese artist Chang En Man’s Snail Paradise, which is part of the most recent edition of the Singapore Biennale. Today we will be eating those snails, prepared three ways.

First though, Chang takes us through the preparation of cinavu, a Taiwanese aboriginal dumpling. We take turns spooning a mix of raw millet, fatty pork and snail onto noni leaves, wrapping them in pandan and banana leaves before tying the bundle off with twine. Chang alternates between tables to guide our handicraft, pausing only to narrate a millet myth from her native Paiwan tribe.

Faced with a room full of people apprehensive that their handicraft skills are about to be put to the test, Chang cheerfully assures us that the wrapping of cinavu is rather foolproof thanks to the help of the large banana leaf. Image courtesy of Singapore Art Museum.

“Millet is sacred to our tribe,” she explains. “Legend has it that aeons past, just a single grain of millet could feed an entire family for a day. Then one day, a lady, feeling tired of cooking individual grains, decided to cook an entire cup of millet at once. The millet expanded so much that it filled her home and squashed her to death, while the gods, furious at her apparent disrespect, decreed that mankind would henceforth need thousands of millet grains to fill their stomachs,” Chang concluded in her usual upbeat tone. I glanced nervously at my table partners, dubiously pondering the story’s intended moral. Say no to meal prep?

Cinavu: Taiwanese aboriginal dumplings made with millet, pork and snail meat.

My thoughts were interrupted by tantalising wafts of fragrant spices that emanated from the kitchen. Food was ready to be served. First up was a fried okra sambal dish – a familiar scent of chilli and dried shrimp accompanied by the unfamiliar sight of small, dark, shrivelled-looking morsels nestled amongst the okra. Biting into one, I was pleasantly surprised to find the inoffensive texture of a soft mushroom (but with less bite), a very neutral taste that provided a lovely canvas for the dish’s spices, and nary a hint of slime. A respectable protein! Conceivably low in carbon footprint too –  I would gladly incorporate this into my diet in the face of climate apocalypse.

The next two dishes, a Chinese-style stir fry and a rendang rendition, confirmed my observation: with little inherent taste save a mild earthiness, snails carry sauces as faithfully as they carry the shells on their back.

Snails stir-fried Chinese-style with eggplant and onions. Image courtesy of Singapore Art Museum.

Native to East Africa, the arrival of the Giant African land snail (Achatina fulica) in Taiwan was driven by the winds of colonialism; the snails were introduced by Japanese government officials, first to Singapore and then to Taiwan in 1932. Although now considered an invasive species, the snails have found their way into numerous indigenous recipes. The process of preparing them is tedious: first, starve the snails on just water for 3 days, then feed them only carrots until their poop turns orange. This entire process, which takes about a week, ensures that the innards of the snails are detoxified.

To explore how snails fit into the Singaporean palate, Chang collaborated with local artists ila and Kin Chui to develop their own snail recipes. “Who knows where rendang is from?” ila quizzes us midway through our rendang course. 20 seconds and a lot of hemming and hawing later, someone tentatively volunteers “Sumatra?” “That is correct,” ila nods. The word rendang means “slowly”, because it had to be cooked upwards of 8 hours till dry to last long enough to be stored without refrigeration in ancient times.

Kin Chui’s rendition of snails on buah keluak soil and butterfly pea flower. Image courtesy of Singapore Art Museum.

Similarly labour-intensive is Kin’s buah keluak and snails recipe, which is inspired by his Peranakan heritage. The first line states: soak buah keluak seeds in water for at least four days, change the water daily and scrub the seeds. In a time of fast food and even faster fashion, spending days preparing a dish seems as incomprehensible as stopping mid-stride to find out whether that snail slogging across our path eventually makes it to the other side. The rendang we know best is left wet, we can buy ready-to-use buah keluak paste at the market, and snail meat comes pre-shelled in cans.

Slowly, the wisdom of Chang’s myth creeps into my consciousness. We worship the gods of convenience while our ancestors laugh at us, shovelling grain after grain into our bellies yet never knowing satiation. Do we truly understand the value of what nourishes our bodies and souls, if we aren’t willing to offer the time and respect demanded of us in exchange? What is left that is sacred to us? Perhaps there is much that we can learn from tradition, and from the humble land snail, if we could only slow down enough.

Chang En Man’s Snail Paradise is an exhibiting work at the Singapore Biennale 2019. View the work at Gillman Barracks, Blk 9, Level 3. 

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