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Snakes and Spice and Bird's Nest Are Nice

by M. Leung

Unusual Ingredients

Winter Volume: 1999 Issue: 6(4) page(s): 9 and 10

A saying in southern China, 'When the autumn wind blows, the three snakes are getting fat,' marks the beginning of snake season. During this time of year, snakes get fat in preparation for their winter hibernation. In South China there are many snake shops--so many, as a matter of fact, that they are as common as candy stores. Some store owners stock them by buying snakes from breeders; others get theirs from snake catchers. I can never tell the difference between those from the wild and those that were bred.

The two most popular ways of preparing snake are either toss-frying or making snake stew. Since the gall bladder of the snake is believed to relieve some of the pain caused by rheumatism, most snake shops are connected to apothecaries. Many of these snake shops would probably sell you their snakes at half price if you would agree to let them keep the gall bladders. In any case, no one kills the snakes themselves. You pick out the snakes you want to purchase, and then the store owner or one of his assistants slaughters them in front of you. He or she takes the gall bladders out, strips the skins off, and filets the meat. The meat and the bones are put into separate containers for you to carry home.

The fileting of the snake requires a special knife. The bones are small and hard and put into a cuisine bag usually to be cooked into a soup with chicken and duck bones. The meat can be toss-fried with vegetables and fresh spices. The soup is also made into a sauce to be added to the fried snake meat just before serving.

A question can arise as to which snakes are used and in which dishes. Two popular combinations in many snake dishes are either three poisonous ones, or a total of five snakes. In the latter case, they would consist of three poisonous snakes plus two non-poisonous ones.

Snake stew, for instance, takes a lot of doing. The snake meat is toss-fried with bamboo shoots, chicken, roast duck, mushrooms, cilantro, and ginger. Then, soup is added to the toss-fried mixture and served hot with a few drops of sesame seed oil, a few petals of chrysanthemum, very thin slivers of lemon leaves, and some Chinese tortilla crisps. Snake dishes are supposed to help circulation. This warms a body against the winter chill.

In Taiwan and in Hong Kong, and in China as well, there are restaurants that specialize in making dishes or dinners from one or more snakes. A few restaurants in Toronto and Vancouver also serve snake dishes, most often during autumn and in winter months. I tried them, but found them to be of lower quality than those in Hong Kong. However, I think the best snake stews made in restaurants are those in Macao. Restaurants tend to skimp on the ingredients in the Western Hemisphere. No matter how good snake restaurant food is, it is made with the general public in mind. For the connoisseur, only food that is made by a connoisseur or by a good chef and made especially for that connoisseur is good enough.

I remember when I first came to western New York. Some students brought a pet snake and threatened to let it loose in the library. They must have thought this act would bring chaos to their library run by a small-sized woman. After I heard that rumor, I announced my favorite snake recipe and then told everyone that any snake on the loose would run the risk of becoming my dinner. After that, no one dared to consider bringing their snakes to school. And, in no way would they bring them to the library.

There was, however, fall-out from that announcement because the Biology Department had a pet boa constrictor. All the biology teachers made sure the snake was safe and sound whenever I was spotted near their department. Eventually, Cleo--their boa constrictor--grew so big that they could not keep her in her cage. Of course, they would not think of giving her to me. For them, that was no option.

Thinking that Cleo would be out of harm's way and have an opportunity to live to a ripe old age in a zoo, they donated her to the zoo in Buffalo. Unfortunately, Cleo's stay at that zoo proved short-lived as a much larger snake ate her. Whenever I think of Cleo, I bemoan the loss of an opportunity towards cultural understanding. Just think what an enjoyable time my colleagues would have had; what with me feasting on snake stew, and they trading stories on a cold Buffalo winter's evening!

Another dish that is considered healthy and one to replenish energy during autumn and winter months is Bird's Nest Soup. It is curious that we do not eat the swallow itself, but rather prepare the nest that it builds. The person who discovered this delicacy must have exhausted all avenues of food-finding.

The swallows that are used to make this and other bids's nest recipes live on high cliffs in very remote areas in Asia. These small birds live on the isolated islands of Indonesia and in parts of Western China; and their nests are still being harvested. Because these swallows build their nests on rocky precipices, they have to use a lot of saliva to make the nesting materials adhere to the rock surface and to withstand strong natural elements.

When dried, these nests are translucent and grayish in color, and have the texture and feel of soft plastic. They are about the size and shape of a human ear. Before people knew about conservation, these nests were harvested about as quickly as they were built. As a result, some of the nests at the end of each season were stained with the swallow's blood. This happened because their saliva glands could no longer produce enough saliva. The red-tinted nests were considered the most valuable.

Now, in fear of causing extinction to these cliff swallows, both the Indonesian and the Chinese governments have limited harvesting of swallow's nests to twice a year. These times are before the eggs are laid and after the swallows have left their nests. At the latter time the nest are empty as the birds have migrated elsewhere. In this way, no blood-tainted nests occur. The blood-colored nests collected in earlier times are still available, and their prices have skyrocketed.

Should you receive or purchase these delicacies and want to make a bird's nest dish, first soak the nests overnight in a bowl of cold water. About two ounces per serving is plenty. After they are soaked, they expand a little. Any feathers, hair, or other inedible debris should then be removed. After cleaning the nests which at this time resemble soaked agar-agar, they are ready to be cooked and served as a soup or as a dessert.

If you want them for soup, add super-soup (a recipe to be discussed in a future article), chicken soup, or another mild meat stock to the cleansed nests. Put them in a porcelain bowl with it and two slices of fresh ginger, a scallion, and some shavings of Chinese ham. The steam them at least until they are hot, some steam them for an hour or two, then serve. They make an appetizing soup which is also nutritious.

If you prefer bird's nest for dessert, use hot water to dissolve some rock candy. Depending upon how sweet you like your desserts, add the appropriate amount of rock sugar. Add the clean nest or nests to the solution and steam for two hours. When ready, serve immediately. Some essence of almond, coconut milk, or whatever flavoring you desire can be added to this very delicate and delicious dessert. It is particularly good after a heavy feast.

In China, all through the ages, swallow's nest soup is fed to very old people and others who are so sick that they could not eat anything in order to sustain themselves. Curiously, these nests are soft and smooth and seem to glide down the throat coating it with a silky sweetness that lingers.

Swallow's nests are supposed to rejuvenate bodies; it is said that they keep us youthful. Rumor has it that the Empress Dowager of the Qing Dynasty was able to keep her youthful looks because of her daily intake of swallow nests. Really good bird's nests, in today's market, costs about $2,000 per pound.

Do try some of these dishes in the United States. If not, take advantage of cheap air fares and the strong dollar and fly to Hong Kong or Macao to taste some authentic snake and bird's nest dishes. For the stay-at-home folk, additional recipes for both of these warming healthful dishes will appear in the next issue of Flavor and Fortune.
Ms. Leung was born in Shanghai, educated in Hong Kong, came to Boston for a Master's degree in Library Science, and stayed for a Doctorate in Education at SUNY Buffalo. Now, she teaches at Amherst Central School and edit's the teachers' union newsletter. This is her second article in Flavor and Fortune with more to follow.

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