What better way to ring in the year of the snake than by feeding snake to Dandoval? Or so we thought, until we tried to find a restaurant that served snake. Not that we'd ever tried before, but we were under the impression that this would be an easy task.
We entered a two-year-old restaurant with a very simple yet clean interior. Dandoval perused the two-page menu with the assistance of the restaurant manager, who recommended the Guangzhou-style snake hotpot.
He couldn't help us with live cobra heart or snake eggs, but instead offered an equally exotic alternative: a (paradoxically) green-colored baijiu infused with the gall bladders of two snakes ("It's like a cheap vodka mixed with a cheap baijiu and a strange, strange flavor," remarked Dan after one sip.) As Dan cringed and his voice became wheezy, the manager smiled and informed us that a jin (approx. 500g) of snake gall bladder costs RMB2,000. The drink's herbal bitterness left a lasting aftertaste first physically on the tongue and later on burned into the memory.
In the meantime, the hotpot had come to a boil, and Dan's chopsticks snaked through the greens and veggies floating on top to snap up a bit of the boiled meat and skin. "Pretty good. Not like fish at all. Not like rabbit. More like beef a bit, and chewier than most pork," he began, dipping little chunks into his bowls of garlic and mala sauce.
The fried snake arrived, a big chunk of a halved snake body, and like a tiger, Dan tore into the magnificently intact skin. "It's different from the one in the hotpot. It's nice and meaty, and the bones are never in the way as you rip the meat and skin off with just one bite," Dandoval's carnivorous instincts had awoken. "A bit more like chewy fish, shrimpy, with a fishy flavor, a bit intestinal. I like the skin," he said (probably because it's crispy on the outside). "The texture reminds me of fish, but the way the meat is laid out, dried yak meat is the closest thing."
Dandoval, who claims to have killed, grilled, and eaten rattlesnakes, continued singing the praises of this professionally prepared snake: "Nice. Really nice. It's different. It's not fish, not beef, not pork. Snake is the new white meat. Actually it's like dark meat chicken. This should be on the KFC menu. Fuck chicken feet. This is the snack of the future. I like this. This is a nice lunch and it's different from anything I've eaten in the recent memory."
But Dandoval's veracious appetite quickly died as he turned his attention to the snake in mala sauce. "This is a lot more like fish. But much softer, and better than fish, at least in this part of China. The problem with mala is that it covers up the flavor." After three bites, his annoyance turned to rants about the boring, chewy, oily dish. "There's so much oil dripping down, you wonder why Exxon is wasting their time in the Middle East."
During the course of our late lunch we started wondering why snake is not much more commonly eaten: The fatless meat seems more healthful than most other animal flesh that's widely consumed and also more delicious and versatile. This restaurant in particular boasted a nice and very attentive staff, and we heartily recommend coming with friends so that you can try a variety of snake dishes and also afford the spectacle of ordering the entire snake (RMB200 to 300). Unless you're averse to mushrooms start the meal with the delicious RMB15 snake soup. The Cantonese snake hotpot is worth a try, and the aromatic fried snake is an absolute must-order at RMB25 per snake steak. The snake in mala sauce is not worth the time or effort and the same goes for the white snake baijiu (which might lead to bad puns about '80s hair bands anyway and definitely leaves your throat with the feeling of just having smoked two packs of cheap cigarettes). The green snake baijiu, on the other hand, is a must-try for its unforgettable visual impression and everlasting aftertaste.
Noteworthy: The baijiu contained some kind of cobra (菜花蛇) known as king ratsnake, stink snake, or "stinking goddess." This name, according to Wikipedia, "refer[s] to this species' highly developed post-anal glands which, when the snake is picked up, are frequently emptied, with a very strong, bad odour." Mmmm.