Eating Snake at Liuhe Nightmarket: Have You Tried This Interesting Delicacy? | Kaohsiung City, Taiwan
The sign above the nightmarket shop couldn't have made it any clearer. Whatever lingering doubts one might have had as to what was being served on the menu here immediately disappeared once you looked up at the giant neon cobra flashing over the entrance way.
I am no stranger to exotic food. Deep fried chicken butt, fermented stinky tofu, boiled pig intestine hotpot, succulent fish eyes, juicy shrimp heads...these are just a few of the things I've not only tried but that I actually love eating as well.
In fact, just a month ago I had a taste of adobo stewed fruit bat in the mountainous highlands of Negros Occidental in the Philippines. Now that, to me, was strange and exotic enough. And trust me, it tasted way better than it sounds.
But for some odd reason, the thought of eating snake was never on my radar. Coming to Taiwan, I knew that snake was popular in both Chinese medicine as well as traditional cuisine. I had even seen pictures of cobras, pythons and other slithering vipers on signs at some of the real traditional nightmarkets whenever we'd walk through them.
But eating snake myself was always one of those things that I pretended not to have any interest in, just so I didn't really HAVE to try it.
And yet there I was one night, willingly walking into a snake shop at Liuhe Nightmarket, with full knowledge of what I was getting myself into.
Drifter Trivia Moment: Background Info on Snake Consumption in Chinese Traditions
Snake features prominently in traditional Chinese medicine. There are many health benefits believed to come from eating snake, like it being good for your eyes, lower spine or even just as a relief for fatigue. The snake's fluids are also thought to be an aphrodisiac for men.
According to the Taiwanese branch of traditional Chinese medicine, eating snake meat soup helps in lowering fever and also can be used as a detox. It may also be prescribed for skin irritations or liver problems.
For myself, there were a few days when I was experiencing a bad outbreak of acne, (yes, I still get pimples.) The Taiwanese love to give their acquaintances open advice on how to solve health problems, it's a way for them to show their concern for you, and there were many words of advice on how to clear up my complexion. One of the things I was told by a few of my friends was to drink a bowl of snake soup several times a week.
But again, because of some inner aversion to the idea of eating a slithering reptile, I declined taking them up on that advice.
How Did I End Up at a Snake Shop?
Recently, a friend from Hawaii moved out to Taiwan to experience the life of an expat herself. She's renting an apartment just a few blocks up from the famous Liuhe Nightmarket, where many traditional Taiwanese street treats are sold, including snake meat.
She had been here for only a little over a month when she got word of another one of her friends coming out to Taiwan for a visit. One of the things he had in mind was to eat something different, exotic, something we wouldn't ever try in Hawaii.
"Chicken feet," someone suggested.
"No, plenty people eat that in Hawaii," he said, shaking his head.
"Stinky tofu," someone else interjected.
"Nah, we eat tofu all the time there, too!" he answered. It was clear he wanted to GO BIG, not just eat the stereotypical Asian delicacies, some of which were regularly eaten in Hawaii anyway.
Pig intestines, pig feet, fish heads...all of these things could be found in Hawaiian kitchens in some way, shape or form, and none of them sounded crazy enough to our visitor.
But when the word snake meat came up, his whole demeanor changed.
"Yeah...snake meat," he said, "Let's go for that one!"
I should have known. Liuhe Nightmarket was just a stone's throw away from where he was staying. It made perfect sense.
And so it was agreed upon, the ubiquitous yet evasive reptilian meat that I had been trying so tactfully to avoid my entire time here in Taiwan would finally be on the dinner menu, and there wasn't much I could do to avoid it.
Taking a Closer Look at What's in the Shop
As everyone sat down at the table outside to discuss what was available on the menu, I decided to take a look around inside the shop instead.
One of the things I noticed was that the whole place was very clean. It was small, like many Taiwanese eateries are, but it was bright and uncluttered.
To the right of the room, against the wall, was a glass display case. Lined along the glass shelves were large jars of liquid concoctions, with various snake parts soaking, brining, liquefying and putrefying.
One of the jars that caught my eye was a yellowish tinged mixture of shiny liquid and plump, pale organs.
I asked the lǎobǎn* what was in them. I was expecting to hear stomach or intestine, you know, something moderately exotic like that. But he smiled at me and told me it was the sexual organs of the male snake, and that the juicy liquid inside was a medicine for drinking. Yup, that's right.
Apparently they make a tea out of these organs and then drink the amber liquid as a medicinal cure for who knows what kind of ailment!
To each his own I guess. I still wasn't entirely convinced about eating the snake meat, so I decided to leave this extremely exotic tea concoction for the truly hardcore locals.
*老板 is the Chinese term for "boss" and used when addressing a male shopkeeper
Another thing I noticed was that the snakes were kept alive inside the restaurant. This would account for the slight "pet shop" odor that wafted out from the left side of the room, which is where the cages were stacked up against the wall.
Just a few years ago, slaughtering live snakes and butchering them on the street in full view of restaurant patrons was considered to be the best way to enjoy this delicacy.
Of course, animal right's agencies and Taiwanese governmental officials realized how cruel and unnecessary it was to put on such a display of bloodshed, so live slaughterings have thankfully been done away with since then.
But as I could see now, they still kept the animals alive and on full display. If anything I guess this was to prove that the snake meat served in their restaurant came from some of the freshest and cleanest of serpents available.
NOTE: I forgot to ask the exact name of the species of snake being served in that shop, so if anyone can take a guess at it by looking at this not-so-obvious picture, please let me know.
The "Snake Meat Everything" Menu
Hanging on the wall on full display was the menu of available dishes. I like to call it the "Snake Meat Everything" menu, as all I could see repeated over and over in every dish were the Chinese characters for "snake" or "snake meat".
A breakdown of the available dishes are below, with Traditional Chinese characters and Pinyin pronunciation for your ordering convenience. All prices are in NT or New Taiwan Dollars.
Considering the fact that an average Taiwanese lunch box costs about 75元, I found the à la carte dishes on this menu to be relatively expensive. I took this as a sign that we were truly in the presence of a precious Taiwanese delicacy.
From left to right:
As you can see, snake was featured prominently in every single dish on the menu. Anyway, I guess it makes sense, as I'm sure no one ever goes there with anything else but the intent of gorging themselves on everything snake.
Which one of the above dishes would you try? Can you guess which two dishes from the menu were the ones that we ordered?
A PHOTO ESSAY: How to Prep Snake Meat Like a Pro!
After ordering our meal, we noticed the woman inside preparing snake meat for cooking and consumption. I hurried over quickly, wanting to document the whole process, or at least the filleting part of it.
At first she stopped politely to let me take a picture, but I asked her to not mind me and just keep at it so I could get the full process in action.
After All Was Said and Done, These Are the 2 Dishes That We Chose From the Menu:
Why I Eat Pig Intestines But Not Serpent Flesh...
Like I mentioned earlier, eating things that most people consider 'strange' never really intimidated me.
Fish head soup? Been eating that since small-kid time*. Lobster brains over hot white rice? Try gimme samoa#. Marinated raw fish cubes? Best served over sour poi^, but still acceptable on hot rice, too. Pig intestines? Barbecued with rock salt and black pepper or stewed with onions, it's all good. Raw sea-urchin guts? The brighter the orange sac the sweeter the kick! And raw limpets and shellfish? People in Hawaii pay big bucks for a pound of that stuff, fresh off the rocks!
As a local boy from Hawaii, I grew up eating "exotic" local dishes all the time, and eating similar ingredients outside of Hawaii is never that big a deal for me.
But snake? Now that's something we don't ever eat. We do have a native snake, but it's so tiny, about the size of a really thin earthworm, that it usually slithers by unnoticed by many. These creatures are so miniscule, that it's rare for anyone in Hawaii to even catch one, let alone eat one!
So snake, yeah, not really my thing. But, as you can see in the photos above, I manned up and ate it.
It's true, I've always believed that, as long as it doesn't contradict your religious, moral or personal beliefs, you should always try eating something at least once. That way at least you can honestly say for yourself whether or not you truly liked it.
*Hawaii Pidgin phrase meaning "When I was a child"
#Hawaii Pidgin phrase meaning "Serve me another portion, please"
^A cherished Hawaiian starch made of pounded and fermented taro root
So What Did I Think? Here's My Final Assessment
And what did I REALLY think about my mouthful of viper meat?
Well for one thing there seemed to be an excessive amount of tiny bones in the stir-fry dish, which in my mind took away from the experience of actually eating the meat itself.
As for the flavor, I found it to be slightly fishy and oily, not unlike eel. And the texture? It was surprisingly firm and meaty, like chicken or pork.
Did I like it? Not really. Will I try it again? Probably not. Then again, you never really know.
In any case, eating snake in a Taiwanese nightmarket was no big deal in the end. It's definitely worth a try if you're ever going to be in Kaohsiung City!
I'm JR. I come from a long line of adventurers, some were nomadic explorers of the sea and others wandering cultivators of the earth. Ultimately, this legacy of drifters has deeply affected my view of travel. Read more...