Sometimes the exotic food of Southeast Asia isn’t really worth the trip
Hear what little Red-Eye saith:
“Nag, come up and dance with death!”
— Rudyard Kipling, “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”
As we sped down Cầu Chương Dương highway just outside Hanoi, Vietnam, I stared blankly out the taxi window and thought about Nag and Nagina, the cobra villains in Kipling’s short story “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”. I’ve read the story dozens of times, and always felt a tug of empathy towards the cobras when their home was invaded and they, along with their unborn children, were killed while trying to protect it.
Our taxi driver, Thao, was more engrossed in entertaining the travelers from Tennessee with an off-key sing-along to “Hotel California” than he was in navigating the narrow roads of Lệ Mật, (or “Snake Village” as it’s known by Westerners). He certainly wasn’t thinking about the ethical implications of a 19th century short story, he was just taking this crazy American couple to a snake restaurant to eat cobra.
The moment we entered the restaurant, “Nhà Hàng Hương Quê-Lệ Mật”, a young man with a large hook immediately began to pull a variety of angry, hissing cobras from a wall of crude enclosures. Our task was to choose one, much like you would pick out a lobster in a seafood restaurant—if lobsters reminded you of a character from one of your most beloved childhood books.
Slice. Bleed. Drip. Cut.
Within seconds of choosing a snake, the eldest of the men unceremoniously sliced open the cobra’s belly, drained about a half-cup of its blood into a glass, cut the still-beating heart loose from its connecting arteries, and delicately removed the unbroken bile sac.
Our host quickly handed me the small, white saucer with the heart, still pulsing in a labored struggle to hold onto life. Channeling my best Explorers Club gameface, I slid the heart down my throat like a fleshy, throbbing land oyster, consciously choosing not to dwell on the feeling of what may have been its final pulses fading on my tongue.
“Thực hiện việc này. Uống!” he said, handing me a shot glass filled to the rim with the still warm cobra’s blood. I downed the shot quickly, in a successful bid to outrun my uncertainties and reservations. The blood was still warm, clean and meaty tasting, not mineral-y or iron-y like I would have expected.
The bile sac was then cut open and drained into a few ounces of rice whiskey that had just been poured from an unmarked bottle it shared with a coiled tree snake. If you are wondering what this emerald-green elixir tastes like, imagine throwing up a little grain alcohol back into your mouth, then swallowing it again. It’s the acrid, bitter taste of harsh realities.
As the whiskey warmed my belly I tried to process what had just happened, but could only sit silently, munching on fresh cucumber slices to provide my senses with something...anything familiar.
Then the dishes made from our chosen Elapidae began to arrive.
Stir fried vegetables with cobra meat that had the texture and flavor of bland, overcooked squid; ground cobra spring rolls fried in snake fat; fried betal leaf pouches filled with a mixture of cobra liver and meat that tasted like wet pennies wrapped in crunchy nothingness. This was not going well.
I briefly perked up when I saw something that looked familiar: fried cobra skin. It looked like fresh chicharrónes (pork rinds), but instead of crispy goodness, these had the flavor of a dirty snake cage. They were almost as disappointing as the dish that I thought was minced meat with herbs but turned out to be crushed cobra bones with herbs. Yes, crushed bones!
It was obvious at this point that our cobra meal wasn’t going to make my top-ten Vietnam food moments, so I just focused on the few dishes that didn’t taste like the lunch buffet at the Star Wars cantina.
There was more food, eight dishes in total, every one included some part of our dearly departed cobra. None of it was great. None of it was disgusting, although it’s pretty hard to find positive things to say about the fried snake skin and cobra liver wraps.
We ate as much as we could manage and exited the restaurant with the politest Southern smiles we could muster. Thao was waiting with his taxi, smiling and holding a to-go bag of his own. As we rode back to Hanoi in complete silence my mind wandered back to Nag and Nagina. I was right all along; we should have just left them alone.
Longtime food writer and professional chef Mike McJunkin is a native Chattanoogan currently living abroad who has trained chefs, owned and operated restaurants. Join him on Facebook at facebook.com/SushiAndBiscuits