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Snake as Food and Medicine

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Unusual Ingredients

Summer Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(2) page(s): 13 and 29

The Chinese have a love-hate relationship with snakes and in the past used to worship them; river gods were often imagined in the form of snakes as were animal demons. There are snake legends such as Madame White Snake who acquired major powers after years of meditation; and two supernatural snakes, The Big Green and the Little Green, at most Buddhist Temples. The love-hate relationship is also because snakes represent all that is negative in the world and yet are regarded as clever but wicked.

The snake, called she, is one of the animals in the Chinese zodiac. It comes after the rat, buffalo, tiger, cat, and dragon making next year the Year of the Snake, also called the Year of the Serpent. In addition to this role, it is one of five noxious creatures, the others, centipede, scorpion, lizard, and toad. Every year, at the Dragon Boat Festival, noble families gave presents to one another including cakes of the five venomous creatures. Their effigies molded on top of the cakes wish avoidance of their poisonous bites. Not only are these noxious five used on cakes, they can be found on wall hangings, on children’s jackets and vests, and on ones for adults for the very same reason. Some who have traveled to China have purchased these garments, probably not realizing their philosophic value.

In addition to the molded variety, snake is part of the Chinese cuisine, as you have read in Leung’s articles in Flavor and Fortune such as the one in Volume 7(1) on pages 13 and 14. As a delicacy, snakes are consumed mainly in late autumn and winter and mostly in and around Guangzhou and in Taiwan. They are frequently served made with tangerine peel or cooked in vinegar, wine, or liquor. Several of their species are thought valuable in the treatment of rheumatism, maybe a sympathetic relationship with the fact that many snakes live in damp and wet places and do not seem to suffer from so doing.

When you see a snake used illustratively, think sensual, male, and an attraction to women; see one with a triangular head and forget that because with this shaped head, it is symbolic of a female. In a country where the birth of a son is so important, dreaming of a black snake presages the birth of a female child; better to dream of a whiter one, it means the child will be male. Should a man consume snake fat he might see his penis shrivel, but when he eats snake liver, he is influencing his own, and eating snake bile it to want to improve virility and/or aid his heart.

During the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE), remittance of all taxes could be reduced or eliminated if a person sent two or three golden serpents (chin she) to the Emperor. Then and today--snakes, particularly poisonous ones, are considered pu which means they are good for strengthening and restoring, also for supplementing and heating. They are also consumed to improve poor pallor, ward off chills--particularly in pregnant women, for other weaknesses in both sexes, and they are considered good for the eyes.

Three to five snakes, some poisonous and the rest not, are most often used when making a snake dish. All types are considered edible including the so-called rat snake (Ptyas mucosus), rattlesnakes, boa constrictors, the cobra and king cobra, sea snakes, and common garden-type snakes. Rare and exotic and as an item of conspicuous consumption, the Python eaten as snake steak is a delicacy in Southern China. This in a land where in the extreme south they change the name of snake when eating them to 'brushwood eel.'

Almost every part of the snake is respected and consumed. The skin is dried and used as medicine but in powder form. Snake wine is made with the meat as is a distilled high proof liquor. One way these are made is to put venomous snake or two into either a wine or a liquor and leave it soak there for a long period of time; long measured in years when one wants the best medicinal value. There is a popular alcoholic beverage called Dragon and Phoenix Wine. It is made using one venomous snake and a pheasant; and it is very popular.

When you buy fresh snakes, the seller loves to skin them for you keeping the exterior as fee for service. They’ll keep the bile, too, if you allow because it is scarce and it fetches a hefty price. I can not speak personally about the taste of snake bile because no one would sell me any; was told it would be wasted on me. This part of this reptile is touted for male virility only. On Snake Street in Taipei they did sell it to my husband who wolfed it down, as is the custom. He did so bottoms up in one gulp, also the custom. What it did for his virility, is another topic.

On that street in Taipei, skinning and bile extraction was done outdoors; the salesmen hawking them loud and often, mostly old men responding to their cries. It was odd to look at the writhing creature. One was held up for my husband’s approval, then impailed on a nail that stuck out on a board. It was then skinned in a manner similar to the way they skin eels in Shanghai. An illustration of that appeared in the hard copy of Flavor and Fortune in Volume 5(4) on page 10.

After skinning the snake ever so quickly, if you were not looking you might miss it, the vendors went on to the next task. A somewhat thick dark green fluid, the bile, was milked from the bile duct directly into a glass, and then some liquor--usually Mao Tai--was added, asking my husband if the small amount already put in was enough. The vendor advised it best to drink immediately after removal from the snake, for best results.

Though not able to report on the bile, I can tell you about the taste and composition of cooked snake meat, and about one of the snake dinners I had in Guangzhou (Canton) in China. I’ve also had a snake banquet in Shen Zhen, and both were eaten at a place called The Snake Restaurant. Never learned, but did try, if these were sister eateries. Every dish served at my first snake banquet and during the other times I’ve eaten snake, some dishes had one snake, others a few.

There can be many different snakes in the soup, main dishes, desserts, and beverages. Their meat always tasted close to but not exactly like chicken, the darker ones a bit more oily; but no matter the flesh color, they were very mild-tasting.

At that banquet in Guangzhou, the meal began with Soup of Three Kinds of Snake. It was a very thick mixture of chicken and snake meat and many different kinds of mushrooms. There were shiitake, bamboo, cloud ear, and straw mushrooms, and a fifth kind I never could identify; nor could I find the characters they wrote for me in any dictionary (and I have more than a dozen). All were cut into slivers as was the chicken and all the snake meat.

Forgot to mention that snake meat comes in various colors, depending upon both the species of the snake and its diet. Snake wine and snake liquor have no particular features I can recall other than being a bit more bitter than an equivalent alcoholic beverage and a mite darker in color.

Notes on this and my other all-snake meals are skimpy. They were written in 1982 long before this magazine was initiated. At that time, I could not imagine writing articles about experiences for a Chinese food magazine. Nonetheless, these scribblings do include many dishes and which ones I adored. The snake banquets were ten course all-snake banquets. They are recorded and remembered as delicious. I can still visualize several of the featured dishes and more vividly is that fact that many were preceded by a waiter who came to the table with snake or snakes in a plastic bucket, waiting for our approval. Didn’t know then and do not know now what to look for except that it should be alive and moving to assure freshness.

The presentation dish at my fist snake banquet was called Chicken with Five Snake Varieties. It included these five quite different meat tastes along with the tastes of pork, Yunnan ham, fish maw, shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and tangerine peel, among other things. My notes advise that this was the first time I was aware that bamboo shoots can be used reconstituted from dry. I write “they are liked better than fresh, their taste more flavorful and their texture less soft.” The notes also say that this was my favorite dish of the dinner. They continue about this presentation platter, I “loved the crisp wonton skin slivers on top along with something that looks like flower petals.” Have since learned that these were chrysanthemum petals.

That meal also calls a dish Brushwood Eels with Vegetables. The notes about it say “eel tasted just like one of the snake pieces in the soup.” Looking back, am sure it was, but as to what kind, I was not sophisticated to know nor smart enough to ask. Chinese cuisine texts read since, tell me that this dish is often made with cobra. That brings to mind our guide telling us he didn’t really want to go a snake restaurant because it was summer and because this restaurant served rattlesnakes, cobras, and others that might kill him. He was from Beijing and resisted my arranging this dinner. He told me that “snakes taste terrible.” What a put-on as I later learned that he had never eaten one before. That evening, I saw him taste every dish with relish, also take seconds of several of them. Notes also say, “no plate returned to the kitchen with a morsel of food, protein or otherwise.”

At that banquet, another of the ten dishes served was Stewed Snakes with Chinese Herbs. The notes say it was “made with three poisonous snakes, pork, longans, tangerine peel, and ginger” and that the broth in its casserole “tasted of lots of wine.” Another dish we ate and I recorded something about was an item called Stir-fried Snake with Vegetables. It had lots of snake and a few peppers, hot and sweet, and it tasted somewhat spicy. My notes say it was served on a small bed of fried mung bean noodles and they also indicate the dish had lots of garlic and ginger, also tangerine peel, and a very citrus-tasting leaf whose name I never learned.

There was another dish, unnamed, that came with snake meat, fish maw, bamboo shoots, and Yunnan ham. It also had many pieces of scallion, sliced. The notes say it tasted “very peppery and was probably white pepper.” This dish was probably akin to the one by M. Leung on page 14 of the previous issue of Flavor and Fortune mentioned above.

Throughout the banquet there was wine for toasting, and many were made, and lots of time to drink pu-er tea; remember, almost every dish was a presentation dish, as is common at fancy banquets, and it was cooked after viewing its main component alive and in a pail. A distilled beverage was used for the first toast; I wrote it was a snake wine, kind unknown. The final dish at this special all-snake meal, also nameless, was made with ginkgo nuts, white tree fungus, and wolfberries. All were stewed in snake wine and the notes advise it “very sweet, lemony, too, and the liquid about as thick as Karo syrup.”

Should you want to make one of the recipes in the above mentioned article, invent one of your own, or try the one that follows that I am told is now very popular in Guangzhou. Seek out this reptile in the freezer section of a large Chinese food market or speak to the fish monger at their fresh fish and seafood area. They should be able to help you. I’ve found snake in several of them, always frozen, and always just advising that the ingredient is snake; variety unknown.
Shredded Snake with Rainbow Vegetables
1 one-ounce package bean thread noodles
1 cup corn oil
3 wonton wrappers, cut in half then into very thin slivers.
2 Tablespoons rice wine
2 Tablespoons red vinegar
1/4 pound Chinese celery, cut into one-inch-long pieces
1 green pepper, cut into thin one-inch-long slivers
1/4 sweet red pepper, cut into thin one-inch-long slivers
1 small daikon, cut into thin one-inch-long slivers
2 Tablespoons dried tangerine peel, soaked and slivered as are the vegetables
1 tablespoon corn oil
2 cloves garlic, slivered as are the vegetables
2 slices fresh ginger, cit into thin slivers
1 Tablespoon wine, dry sherry, or vermouth
1/2 pound snake meat, cut into one-inch thin slivers
1. Pull bean threads apart in half.
2. Heat cup of oil and fry half the bean threads until they expand completely, drain them, put on paper towels and repeat with the other half. Put both batches on a platter and crush them ever so slightly, just until the top seems flat.
3. Fry the wonton wrapper pieces, drain and set aside on a paper towel.
4. Soak snake meat in wine and vinegar for one hour, drain and discard the liquid.
5. Mix celery, peppers, daikon, and tangerine peel and set aside.
6. Heat oil in a wok and fry garlic and ginger until it gives off a strong aroma.
7. Fry the vegetable mixture for one minute, then add the wine and the snake meat and stir-fry about three minutes, Put on the bean threads and serve topping with the fried wonton pieces.
Serves six to eight.

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