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Eating a Snake in Vietnam 

Time was running out to sample snake in Vietnam, when in Rome and all that; so I summoned Thỉớng, my Vietnamese moped driver to take me to the experience.  We mounted his 50CC Honda and revved it across the river to the snake restauant.  Thỉớng twice stopped to make enquiries from groups of crouching men on street corners, who I thought suppressed laughter at the sight of an oversized Westerner and a waif of a Vietnamese off to eat snake on an undersized bike.

We eventually spluttered into a cemented lane and into a courtyard at Kim Kê Quán where six young men greeted us.  Thỉớng said something and we were pointed to a grid of cages containing live snakes in the upper levels and live chickens in the lower ones.  Whether the chickens were sold as dishes or whether they served as feedstock for the snakes was none of my business.

We were invited to inspect the merchandise.  A short tour of the cages revealed snakes of varied sizes, colouration and vigour.  The handler watched my face.  When he detected interest he would hook out a snake with a crook and pivot it in display to a curious courtyard coterie who would gingerly circle it in the fresh Hanoi air.

Each snake extricated had its venomous pedigree announced.  “Thees one, he said of a yellow snake with blue markings “he bite hand, hand come big, like ball.  You no die ”,.  “Thees snake 220 000 dong”.  It was put back into its cage.

Ah, thees one”, he said of a ringed brown and copper snake which he paraded with a cautious pride at the end of his crook, “he bite, ten minutes you fall.  Thirty minutes you die.  Thees one 500 000 dong”.  At a stage the snake shook out of its deceptive docility and struck out upon which we jumped back witless.  When our minds registered again the handler had instantly subdued it with his crook, but it slunk there hissing, darting.  Oh for life, life, this fragile thing called life!  How precious it is!  How many deaths do we survive before to the big one we succumb?

The shock subsided but the fear did not as the parade rolled on, snake after snake.  It was time to decide.  Thỉớng consulted and all options considered, we settled on the 220 000 dong snake, the one that could swell your hand like a soccer ball if it bit, and not the expensive one that almost had us dead in thirty minutes.  Best not tempt fate.

Our snake was taken to an open-air kitchen and strung around the neck to a high rod by a piece of gut.  The pretty thing was now to be killed.  It now smelt fear.  We watched the handler grab it in the middle and stretch it taught against its struggles.  He then plunged a pair of sharp secateurs into its heart and wriggled them about.  An eager assistant held a glass tumbler at the ready to collect the blood, the first flow of which oozed forth in pulses like red roses opening in spring.  The rest of the life-giving liquid was milked out in slow trickles with long sweeps of the fist.  Deed done, the murderer released his grip.  The snake protested its injury with shakes and slow curls and shortly expired.  It was then intently skinned with a sharp knife and handed on a platter to a bored cook who perfunctorily chopped it up with a machete into around six different cuts.  I suppose the snake equivalent of fillet, brisket, sirloin, short-rib and the like; I can’t research everything.

They worked well in that kitchen.  We watched as the different cuts were stir fried in a smoking wok with spices and herbs.  A vegetable chef expertly sliced and diced his wares.  The liver was ground until it extruded a green bile which was placed in a second tumbler.  Or was it gall out of the gall bladder?  My snake anatomy’s rather shaky.  The two tumblers – the one containing the bile and the other the blood – were strengthened with alcohol poured from a ewer upon which they burst out into livelier greens and reds.  What colours for Picasso!

The spectacular part of proceedings over, we were shown to the restaurant proper, a soft open-air space on the first floor surrounded by huge wooden pillars and red paper lanterns.  We sat on cushions at low tables on straw mats and ordered beer.  Thỉớng in particular looked forward in glee to partake once again of this favourite delicacy.  A large tray duly arrived, and its many dishes were lain out with gentility and punctilio.  How appetising it all looked!

Eating a snake dish

Thiong Eats Snake

Of course, everyone asks what it tasted like, even those who recoil at the tale I tell.  They sway away in mock horror, churn their eyes and their stomachs, but when I offer to stop, at around the point of the pulsating heart and the red roses say – an imagery they hate – they implore me to carry on, like masochists, wanting more.  What do I tell them?  A thousand words cannot describe the taste of a pear.  The rib balls shared the crunchiness of the duck tongues I had eaten at a mayoral banquet inHangzhou, and cracked as you chewed them.  Not the most digestible of morsels, but nothing that couldn’t be washed down with a slug of bile-fire.  The fillet texture called to mind the white translucence of the crocodile starter they serve at Aubergines, but not the taste.  More piquant?There were other bites and morsels on the platters, all very encouraging, and rendered more so by throaty jets of blood liquor we sipped to snake our thirst.  Gave me a zing all around.  Besides, snake blood has proven aphrodisiacal properties I was assured, and goes for a song compared to rhino horn.  When last had I looked at rhino horn prices, they asked?  Lord knows we could do with more sexual potency in the world, they said.

Vietnamese King Cobra

King Cobra for eating

There we sat, Thỉớng an I, cross-legged on the floor, reposed at our reptilian repast.  Morsel of this, morsel of that, sip of this, sip of that.  Merriment and laughter, with just the occasional flashback to the near-death episode in the courtyard to shiver things up a little.  As for Thỉớng; Thỉớng is a snake natural, and had to desist after the eighth helping lest he morph into a blimp.  How could so much snake fit into such a meagre frame?

What’s next?  Listen, I’m off to Argentina on Friday and hear they prepare a fearsome offal, achuras, that scares the living daylights out of ghosts.  Can’t wait.

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Notes:

  1. To my untrained to ear Thỉớng is pronounced “Tea-Hong”.
  2. For truly adventurous eating around the globe read Anthony Bourdain’s “The Nasty Bits, collected Cuts, useable Trim, Scraps and Bones”, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006, ISBN 0-7475-7981-4.  Sections of it make this story a salubrious health-kick.
  3. Aubergine restaurant is at 38 Barnett Street in Gardens, Cape Town.  Very good, and yes, crocodile was still on the menu when I lasted looked.
  4. The dong is the Vietnamese currency.
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