This past week in New York City, a cobra was wandering the mean streets. Lost, alone, and apparently armed with a smartphone as she tweeted about the people she supposedly met and places she visited. Now that she is safely back in the safety of her home at the Bronx Zoo, she should pause and give thanks that she wasn't slithering around in a different city – one that views the world's most venomous snakes as fodder for happy hour.
Throughout many countries in Southeast Asia there's a long tradition of combining poisonous snakes like cobras (which account for the majority of the 50,000 deaths by snake bite per year) and alcohol to make a variety of potions reputed to cure a laundry list of health issues. Like the snake oil salesmen of past eras, these elixirs are supposed to enhance virility and sexual performance, increase strength, cure baldness, improve vision, stave off disease and illness, and contribute to overall health. The concoctions are known by many names, from snake wine to pinyin, and can be found in Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, and even some places in mainland China.
In fact, Taipai, a city in Taiwan, is famous for its Snake Alley, where several vendors allow visitors to choose their own snake. These are generally Asian cobras of varying size and age – the bigger and older ones command a significantly higher price, presumable because they contain more blood and poison. Once chosen, customers can watch the snake be butchered alive for their drinking and eating pleasure. Entire restaurant menus actually revolve around this practice, delivering multi-course feasts from just one or two snakes.
And butchered they are. There are two commonly accepted ways to make these concoctions. The most dramatic involves slitting the snake, still alive, from head to tail and draining the blood into a shot glass of whiskey, rice wine or grain alcohol, often combined with honey. The other bodily fluids, including bile, venom and urine are generally separated into glasses of booze as well, and downed in order, further fortifying the drinker. Obviously the snake's health is slightly compromised at that point, especially given that its still beating heart is generally plucked out and dropped into a glass of booze too. The blood tastes metallic, and some have compared it to watered-down tomato juice. The others are reputed to be far more foul, especially the bile which is bitter and tends to cling to the tongue, necessitating a chaser – usually beer.
Just as importantly, and luckily for those consuming the grisly meal, the high-proof alcohol sterilizes the snake parts and denatures the poison, making it possible to eat with relative impunity, though those with delicate stomachs may be wise to steer clear. The entire process makes the Bronx Cobra's field trip seem decidedly tame in comparison.
The other approach offers a nice souvenir, provided the traveler can get it through customs. Large snakes like cobras are stuffed into bottles, often alongside small snakes and traditional medicinal plants and herbs, and steeped in rice wine or grain alcohol. Occasionally flavoring is added, but all too often it's simply left in its “natural juices,” leaving only the manly essence of snake. A snake eau de vie, if you will. Of course, some of the most valuable bottles contain snakes considered endangered, making import of this snake oil problematic, at best. All the more reason to take a pass.
Now, most of these magic potions are made with Asian cobras, not the Egyptian cobra that became a hero for caged reptiles everywhere. But if she ever heads out again, just to be on the safe side, she should probably skip the dim sum in Chinatown.