Tom Herbert

China post: Snake hotpot

‘There you go!’ Our cheery waitress puts the bowl down. ‘Snake hotpot’. The previously rowdy table suddenly falls silent, each one of us contemplating the pieces of Naja or ‘Chinese Cobra’ bubbling away in the metal cauldron in front of us. The owner of the Snake King Emporium Mr. A, a jocular man in his mid 40s from the Southern Chinese city of Guangzhou seems to be having a whale of a time, and pours us some ‘special’ baijiu (think grappa on steroids) from a snake-filled glass container. I gingerly fish out a bit of meat from the broth with my chopsticks and pop it into my bowl, still undecided about its final destination…

Snake and turtle hotpot

Snake and turtle hotpot

Most cultures around the world have at least one kind of food that calls for bravery from those who eat it for the first time. London’s East End boasts any number of jellied eel stalls where hardy locals or adventurous tourists can try the slithering elongated fish for themselves, and most folk of the non-Gallic persuasion are still fairly bemused by how someone decided that the garden snail would go well with garlic butter. I’ve seen Koreans swallow down live baby octopus with my own eyes, and have never really understood why the Japanese are so fond of seaweed.

China seems no exception to this rule – in fact to most Westerners it seems to boast more than its fair share of such ‘courage cuisine’. Along with Chinese banquet staples such as birds nest soup, shark fin, stinky tofu, and century egg, there are any number of other dishes that help to enforce the classic ‘if it has four legs and it’s not a table then they’ll eat it’ stereotype many around the world have of the Chinese (although it is worth noting that the Chinese themselves apply this stereotype to Southern Chinese!).

Current chef du jour Fuchia Dunlop spends a fair proportion of her latest book talking about the importance of overcoming boundaries when it comes to enjoying Chinese food, and in particular certain textures that those of us with minimal exposure to real Chinese cuisine find difficult to stomach. She argues that slimy objects such as abalone and wood ear mushrooms that disgust those unused to them can be an almost sensual experience to those born into the culture, or who take the time to acclimatise.

Some Chinese dishes found slightly repulsive by Westerners have evolved out of necessity; pig trotters, chicken claw and duck gizzard were all born out of a desire not to waste any of the slaughtered animal. Even in these times of relative economic prosperity these dishes have maintained a presence on the Chinese dinner table while other cultures simply discard them in favour of neatly-packaged, unidentifiable hunks of meat. Whether this remains the case with more exposure to Western provisions in years to come will be interesting.

Snake Alcohol

Snake Alcohol

Upon being informed of my upcoming choice of restaurant, a friend in Beijing who is vegetarian for religious reasons commented, ‘Well you shouldn’t eat any of them, but if you eat pigs, cows and fish why shouldn’t you eat snake?’ While I understand her point of view, I’m not so sure I agree it’s so clear cut, especially with a bowl full of snake in front of me…

Snake lovingBack at the Snake King I’m struggling. One of the chefs stands in the door of kitchen brandishing a live Chinese Cobra. ‘Don’t get too close!’ he taunts, ‘She can spit a long way!’ Surprisingly this does not help my appetite. Mr. A seems keen to dish out more baijiu, and I’m really keen not to drink it. Desperate measures are called for, so in an effort to distract him I pick up the hunk of snake, lift the chopsticks to my mouth and take a bite…

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