Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Snakes On A Plate - Adventures in Taiwan

As promised, I went to Taiwan and ate a snake. I remember looking over the photo's from Robyn's parents' trip to China a few years ago as they described how the diners next to them had celebrated the birth of their grandchild by having a snake's throat slit tableside and toasting with its blood. I was fascinated by this unusual delicacy, but not quite fascinated enough to drink fresh blood. Since Taipei's Snake Alley is famous for restaurants specialising in different preparations of our slithery friend, I figured I should seize the chance to eat a snake in its natural culinary habitat. It probably tasted just like unagi, right?

Despite their hyping of Snake Alley, our guidebook provided little advice for anyone who might like to sample the food, just the reassurance: "Don't worry, you won't be served snake unless you visit a restaurant that specialises in it". Granted, most tourists would probably prefer to stick with dumplings and noodles, but the food vocabulary section gives the Chinese for things like Frozen Duck's Blood Soup (yaxie gao, if you're interested). Is any traveller more likely to chow down on frozen ducks blood than a snake steak? I don't think so. We armed ourselves with the Japanese kanji for snake (蛇) and hoped it was the same.

After asking a few expats for directions we finally found the place, and decided that Snake Alley is more like Seedy Sex Shop Alley these days. There were only two likely looking restaurants. The first had cages of snakes and rabbits in the doorway. Outside, the angriest looking Taiwanese woman I've ever seen was playing with a big .... python? Like this one:


Christina's rather nervous "oh my god, a snake!" exclamations seemed to throw her into a rage, and she stomped off to retrieve a rabbit in a small fish tank which she tangled provocatively in front of her pet. The other place had a video of the chef preparing and drinking snake's blood playing outside, with signs in Japanese (a plus) but the sole English sign declaring No Photos (damn). We settled on the first place and braved the angry snake handler:

Snake Restaurant Taipei

Once inside, we had a choice between snake's blood, snake's blood and a tasting menu of 7 organs and offal, soup with snake meat, stir fried snake and BBQ snake. Hrrrmm. In the end we went with the stir fry:

Stir-fried snake.

The texture was closest to calamari, though a little less chewy, and the flavors were very mild and sweet, like an un-fishy swordfish or bland poultry
. The taste of the meat was somewhat overpowered by the strongly spiced sauce and greens that tasted of aniseed, but perhaps that was the point. Snake seems to be eaten as much for its medicinal properties as its flavor, with many believing it can improve your eyesight and relieve fatigue.

Back at our hostel we chatted with some of the local English teachers who said the Alley was popular with older Taiwanese guys looking for an aphrodisiac before heading to one of the areas many massage parlours. According to this site "snake gall is believed to be a terrific aphrodisiac, more potent than two doses of Viagra and a bowl of raw oysters.... men in particular do shots of it because the Chinese character for gall 季 dan also means courage". Perhaps the bottles of "hebi seieki" (snake sperm) on sale are also meant to increase libido:


At TW$420 (around US$12) it was the most expensive meal I ate in Taiwan, though still very reasonable, and probably my least favorite. Yet I'm sure I'll remember it long after the wasabi hotdogs and bubble teas we enjoyed afterwards. How often do you get the chance to bite a snake?

Background on snake in Chinese cuisine.
A review of three snake dishes.

No comments: