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  Beijing Scene



Snake Eyes Ayi

 

Hey Ayi,
The other night I went to dinner with a Chinese client and not long after we sat down, the
waiter brought a live slithering snake to the table. Thinking this was some kind of joke, I laughed nervously until the waiter slit the snake throat to tail. Then I was talked into drinking its blood and bile, before having to eat the flesh itself. Did I just participate in some sort of cult-like ritual, now bound to sell my soul to (or at least enter into a joint venture with) the client's company?
Cheers,
Monty Python

Dear Monty,
Don't worry, your soul (and your career) is still safely intact. If you spend enough time in China, sooner or later you are going to be offered a serpent. I'm just sorry that it took you by such surprise. However, now that you've had your first introduction, you're ready to learn all about snakes and the role they play in Chinese culinary culture.

We Chinese have a love-hate relationship with snakes. We love to eat them, but we also love to hate them. According to Chinese thought, unlike the omnipotent, protective dragon, snakes symbolize darkness and negativity. In fact, in ancient times, most mental and physical ills were directly attributed to the malevolence of snakes.

With that in mind, remember that Chinese subscribe to the belief that like cures like. That's why eating snake is considered good for you. For example, a brush with an evil snake can be canceled with one mouthful of fried snake. Therefore snakes are avidly collected in China, the more poisonous the more desirable. When prepared as medicine, the snake's gall is often cut out, dried, crushed to a powder or bottled whole, and then used to cure everything from dandruff to dementia.

Also, snake gall is believed to be a terrific aphrodisiac, more potent than two doses of Viagra and a bowl of raw oysters. Southern China, Hong Kong and Taiwan are home to some of the most die-hard fans of this bilious love potion. Men in particular do shots of it because the Chinese character for gall dan also means courage. In fact, your Ayi slipped a few shots of snake dan and ?3/4 liejiu (hard liquor) to her (r)"?airen (lover) on their wedding night.

There is a wide variety of snakes to choose from in China. Mambas are known to pack a wicked kick. They're called the "next peak" snake because supposedly, if bitten, you die before you make it to the next mountain village. Cobras are the kings of the serpent kingdom, and are thereby regarded as a delicacy within a delicacy.

Eating snake is a Cantonese tradition that dates back to at least the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). As you have already discovered, this delicacy has made its way to the northern capital, and any self-respecting Cantonese eatery will be more than happy to introduce you to the art of snake-eating. Several restaurants in Beijing offer "Three Dishes from One Snake" or yi she san chi ""?'. When you order, insist that they bring the snake to the table and have them cut it open first so you can make sure that it's alive moments before cooked. Also, that way you can see that the cuts are done in the proper fashion, an important detail according to snake chefs.

Once the snake has been bisected, the gall and blood make up the first "dish." The gall of the snake is mixed with baijiu (3/4 grain alcohol) to make it more palatable. This mixture is called she dan dui jiu. It's slightly bitter, but the taste is masked if you pick a good strong liquor. The more you drink, the less you notice the bitterness. Then comes the blood, which is also blended with baijiu and downed in tiny shot glasses. This is called she xue dui jiu.

The other two dishes consist of a plate of meat and the skin. The meat, which is supposed to help improve blood circulation, is served fried and looks like miniscule racks of spare ribs. But don't expect much meat on the bones of a skinny Beijing grass snake. For a hearty snake meal you'll have to head down south and try the python dishes there. Snake skin has the texture of gummi bears and does not taste like much at all, so eat it with lots of garlic.

So Mr. Python, the next time you find yourself staring a serpent in the face, remember the ancient Chinese proverb: He who bites last bites best.

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