I HAVE TO START BY saying that not every Chinese person has eaten snake-related dishes. In fact, I had never thought that snakes could be eaten until I read about it in a novel while I was in middle school. I was so astonished that I even re-checked the Chinese character “蛇” (“snake” in Chinese) several times before finally accepting that it was not a typo. I can still remember the plot describing the process of killing and cooking a snake. It made me curious, and, unexpectedly, made my mouth water…
FOOD FOR TOUGH TIMES
The book was a famous piece of fiction called “The Chess Master” (棋王) written by A Cheng (阿城) in 1984. The story takes place in China during the Down to the Countryside Movement (上山下乡) of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The unnamed narrator and the chess master Wang Yisheng are two young intellectuals among many who are sent to a remote farm in the mountains to work. People could not afford good meals in those tough years.
One day the narrator caught a snake and invited his friends, including the chess master of course, to enjoy the snake meat together.
Before cooking, he hung the snake on a tree branch and used a bamboo knife to peel the skin off. He said the meat would begin to smell bad if touched by iron, so he cut it with a bamboo knife.
Instead of cutting the meat into pieces, he slashed it with the cutter and coiled it up into a big bowl. Then he boiled the water in a pot. While the snake was being steamed, he searched for the ingredients to use as dips.
Seasonings were rare luxuries at that time, so he asked people surrounding him only for basic items such as soy sauce, vinegar and salt. Other herbs like green onion and garlic were available from the gardens free of charge. After mixing all the seasoning ingredients in a small bowl, the snake meat was ready.
No sooner had the narrator put the tender-looking meat on the table, than his friends dived in to eat it with the simple dips. The delicious snake meat stopped their conversations. Soon only bones were left in the bowl. The narrator added fennel and made bone soup.
MEDICINAL AND POPULAR
In wealthier times, when there was a wider choice of cuisines, snake meat was not abandoned. Traditional medical classics recorded the benefits of eating snake, so it was considered worth keeping on the menu.
According to “Compendium of Materia Medica”(本草綱目) in the Ming Dynasty (明朝), the whole body of snake was useful from a medical perspective, especially the guts and the skin, which could be used as remedies for eye diseases and strokes. Even the toxin of a venomous snake could be effective for pain relief if used appropriately. Right up until the present day, it is common to see old folk in China drink liquor with a snake soaking in it.
Food historians say that snake has been eaten in parts of China for more than two thousand years, originally being a high-class dish, eaten only by the nobility. The dish is said to have originated in Guangdong in southern China.
A BRIEF HISTORY
The inventor, it is said, was a Guangzhou government minister named Jiang Kongyin (江孔殷). During the Qing Dynasty, Jiang retired and started inviting guests from other provinces and abroad to eat his snake soup. This was delicious, cooked with complex procedures. The soup was the essence of five kinds of snake, boiled for an entire night. Before eating it, sliced chicken, chopped crispbread and peppermint would be added.
Snake soup gradually grew in popularity in Hong Kong during the British era, with more than 100 snake shops in the city in the 1980s. But the dish has dwindled in popularity, with today’s young preferring pizza and Japanese food. Now there are believed to be about 20 snake shops remaining.
Image at the top from Timothy Dykes/ Unsplash.