By Benjamin Cost
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.
SNAKE (蛇, shé)
Regions of use: China, Southeast Asia, consumed elsewhere but not as prevalently
Tasted at: Dahushedao (大胡蛇岛) // 222 Kangding Road, near Jiangning Road (康定路222号, 近江宁路) // Closest Metro Stop: Changping Road (昌平路) Line 7
Western Christian theology has long cast the snake as a villain, namely due to its temptation of Eve in the Book of Genesis and subsequent dooming of all of humanity.
By contrast, in Chinese theology the snake is an enigmatic philosopher and one of the most esteemed zodiac symbols. The snake’s exalted attributes also translate to Chinese gastronomy, where it occupies an elite niche alongside foods such as shark’s fin and bird’s nest.
Our mission was to sample this fabled food and see if snake turned out to be off-putting, delectable, or simply, in the words of every wildlife program, “something many believe to be slimy, but is actually not.”
The viper wine (left), a relic from an older snake restaurant
Chinese cuisine has boasted snake recipes for thousands of years, among the most famous of which is “Five Venomous Snake Soup”, a Cantonese autumn delicacy with origins in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). But most intriguing is how the snake became such a gastronomic grail in the first place – a status linked to its perceived medicinal properties.
One story tells of a Tang Dynasty emperor (AD 618-907) who lost his appetite and tried every known remedy to regain it, but to no avail. Only after consuming a certain robust snake bearing markings in the likeness of his imperial stamps, did his hunger return to a ravenous degree.
The exuberant emperor then decreed that locals living in the region of Hunan where the miracle serpent dwelled would be exempted from taxes if they captured a snake, a ruling that eventually depleted the population.
Nowadays, the snake, a pit viper of the Trimeresurus genus, remains confined to a few forest patches in Hunan province – perhaps a product of its heavy demand since ancient times. We were privileged enough to view a wine-preserved specimen with coils as thick as a Mr. Olympia forearm (left). Harvested 14 years ago, this particular snake may be among the last of its kind to grow to goliath size due to its dwindling environment.
The viper-wine’s stiff price (60,000 RMB, including the snake) and scarcity mean that few expats will probably ever reap its purported efficacy as a “munchies”-inducer. But the Chinese believe snakes to possess a variety of other healing faculties, including the ability to cure rheumatism (something attributed to the snake’s ability to cope in its damp habitat), restore eyesight, and clear up your complexion. And not surprisingly, snake penis wine is deemed one of the best things for endowing men with anacondas of their own.
Snake also ranks as the fourth Off the Beaten Palate delight to slither past beef in just about every facet of nutrition. Snake houses around 90 calories for every 100 grams of meat (under half of beef’s calories) and only 30% of the fat in steak along with essential vitamins and minerals.
A trip to Dahushedao
“Rearing” to sample one of China’s most revered foods, we visited our friend, Mr. Hu; restaurateur, snake guru, and a man with a personal story involving every scaly member of Chinese cuisine. He reminds you of one of those wine nuts who can name a wine’s vintage by its flavor, but for delicacies involving exotic beasts.
Also a die-hard Chinese food elitist, Mr. Hu has little regard for fare that doesn’t pose a challenge for the diner:
“What makes Chinese cuisine so great is that you’re forced to exercise your brain to eat it. You have to master chopsticks and use them to dissect creatures. You shell shrimp, pick at heads. There are no boneless chicken breasts, fish fillets….dumbed down foods.”
And Mr. Hu’s restaurant tributes his philosophy by offering every nitty-gritty bit of the slitherer from snake-skin to snake gall bladder in liquor. We had come specifically for the venomous serpent hot-pots, which entail a choice of viper (around 500-600RMB), banded krait (around 600RMB), and cobra (1000RMB and up) – none of which are listed on the menu. All must be reserved a day ahead of time (so the handlers can lug them from snake farm), all require at least an hour’s prep time, and you must arrange with Mr. Hu if you want to see a snake live. Feeling up to the theatrics, we picked cobra.
Quantum of Cobra
To view the cobra before its beheading, we arrived an hour and a half early at the restaurant. Small and sparsely decorated with tacky beach scene wall paintings, the joint seemed more like a retirement home cafeteria than a snake spot.
But that changed when we met the handler, who, instead of giving us a peek of the cobra in a chained bin in the kitchen, dumped it out in the middle of the dining room. Four feet of black coils with milky stripes and a limo-like sheen flopped onto the linoleum.
The handler proceeded to prod the snake with his boot so it would fluff up its hood for the camera. For a brief moment, it appeared the Off the Beaten Palate series would end with a fanging in the calf, a pumping of neurotoxin, and death due to respiratory failure.
Unfortunately (yeah we felt bad despite the danger) the snake barely reared when nudged and only inflated its hood to half-mast – not exactly the hyper-aggressive specimen we see striking at the camera on nature shows. And after a few snapshots, a creature tamed by exhaustive handling was whisked away to the kitchen to its demise.
We watched on a kitchen cam as the handler lopped off the head with a pair of jumbo scissors, sparking its writhing death throes, before it lay still. Shortly thereafter, a beaming Mr. Hu emerged from the kitchen bearing a glass with the cobra head and another containing its crimson blood. He stated that the blood would need to age in liquor for five days before it was ready to be drunk. Our pre-dinner show had concluded.
Eating an elapid
Cobra soup embodies everything cobra with splayed sections of skin-on snake meat, stomach, and liver all swimming in chicken stock. Even the hood with its ornate eyespots buoys to the surface when you dip your ladle in.
But the Indiana Jones mystique quickly fades when you nibble a coil and realize it’s the most familiar-tasting rare eat you’ve ever eaten. It’s like a taxidermist stitched snake skin onto chicken, inserted fish bones, and simmered the result – the only difference being that the flesh clings to the bone less stubbornly than chicken.
Most interesting is the skin, which reminds you of that of a bass, but rips apart easily into glutinous flaps. “One of the best skins I’ve ever eaten,” exclaimed one of our party. The long, beige liver is kind of like a firmer, leaner paté.
The strangest of all snaky treats were the shot glasses full of swamp-green snake bile liquor (20 RMB for two shots); a drink Mr. Hu sips on as an almost nightly ritual. While some members of our party preferred it to baijiu, others of us thought it tasted like rotten toad guts fermented in Everclear, making it a bizarre nightcap.
Consuming cobra won’t allow you to foresee the future or hypnotize the opposite sex by staring into the pools of their eyes, as it’s essentially a very chicken-y reptile – one that costs upwards of 1000RMB, mind you. In fact, for more exotic-tasting and economical fare, we’d recommend the snake skin salad (a 38RMB dish with the paradoxic gelatinous crunch of jellyfish), or any one of the uriah shaw snake dishes. There’s even a snake, chicken, and hardshell turtle soup that we’ve yet to sample (588RMB).
But there’s no denying that from its loosing from the bag to the lifting of the pot lid to reveal its ornamental coils, cobra is the meal packed with the most adrenaline, and one of the most epic culinary experiences we can remember. Two venom-necrotized thumbs way up.
Last time on Off the Beaten Palate: Bamboo worms, bees & other bugs
See a complete list of our Off the Beaten Palate series here.