Palestinians rediscover vast appetite for snails

Snail recipes been passed from generation to generation in the Middle East, where many historical sources suggest the dish originated, and their popularity has led to a population decline in the West Bank.

al-monitor Snails (helix pomatia) are seen at a farm in Dolginovo, Belarus, Aug. 22, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko.

Mar 11, 2020

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — In the cold days of winter, residents of some Palestinian villages in the West Bank go out to collect land snails, which they will cook into a favorite winter meal.

Although the dish is widely associated with French cuisine, it has been passed from generation to generation in Palestine. Many historical sources suggest the dish originated from the countries of the Maghreb, specifically Morocco and Algeria, where it is known as Babbouche. It can also be found in Lebanese cuisine.

Antoine Issa, 69, is a Palestinian resident of the village of Aboud, west of Ramallah. The village has a mixed population of Muslims and Christians, mostly Eastern Orthodox. Issa told Al-Monitor the story of the meal he prepares every year as part of the rituals of the winter season. His entire family gathers to feast on the different dishes he makes with the snails in different herbs and sauces.

“When rain showers start in the winter, we rush to the rocky lands west of the village to collect land snails. We force them out of their hideouts between the rocks,” he said. “I would collect thousands of them in the past years during the winter season, but in the last three years, the numbers of snails dropped in the village as a large number of residents started collecting and eating them.”

He said that young people out of work and in need of money have discovered the value of the snails. “They are collecting the snails and selling them in other Palestinian cities in the West Bank. The price of 100 snails ranges between 20-25 shekels [$6 to $7]."

Once gathered, the snails are placed in wooden boxes where they are fed cucumbers or lettuce to make them meatier and tastier. 

Issa explained the cooking process, “Around 400 to 500 snails are placed in a large pot and covered with boiling water. We cook them for an hour, then add spices, salt, chopped onions, lemons and some wild herbs. The dish is best served hot.”

This Palestinian traditional dish has surged in popularity in recent years and is served seasonally in some Palestinian restaurants. Thaer Shaheen, the chef at Darna Restaurant in Ramallah, told Al-Monitor that more people are ordering snails these days.

Shaheen said that the restaurant offers various snail-based dishes. “Some want to eat it directly after being immersed in hot water, and some like to eat it after mixing it with fried tomatoes. Others prefer it with spinach. In the French cuisine, snails are first marinated in a pan with some herbs, spices and butter, and then placed in the oven to reheat,” he said.

However, the land snail population has been declining in some Palestinian villages, particularly near Ramallah. The Aboud village council appealed to its residents to cut back on snail collection to allow them to reproduce.

 “We cannot prevent citizens from collecting snails. There are no laws against it," Hanna Khoury, a member of the Aboud village council, told Al-Monitor, "Also, there is an increasing demand for this dish by residents. More than half of the 2,200 population of Aboud village eats snails, not to mention the residents of other villages, specifically in Tulkarm in the northern West Bank.”

The nutritional and health benefits of this meal are key factors in its popularity. Isra Sidr, a nutrition specialist at Shoroq Clinic in Ramallah, noted that snails are a good source of protein. Sidr explained that nutritionists recommend snails as part of a healthy diet. “They are low fat and rich in iron. Snails are also good to fight colds and flu. However, a person should not eat more than 200 grams in one sitting,” Sidr said.

Though both Muslims and Christians eat snails, they are more popular among Christians, as land snails come under the rule against eating insects in some Islamic sects.

The deputy head of the Fatwa division at the Palestine Scholars Association in Gaza, Mohammad Alloush, told Al-Monitor that scholars hold diverging opinions on eating l snails. “For the majority of scholars, it is forbidden to eat it, as it is an insect. But, the Maliki school of fiqh permits it, just like locusts.”

Alloush explained that the prohibition is partly due to the difficultly of slaughtering snails under the rules of Sharia.

“Eating a wild snail for a therapeutic purpose is admitted as halal among Muslim scholars,” he said. “Meanwhile, it is permissible to eat sea snails because under Islam everything caught from the sea is permissible.”

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