Every time I pass by one of those classic Chinese pharmacies, I can’t help but stop. You’ve seen them — the deer antlers and sea cucumbers sold in gift boxes; the dusty owls perched above the counter; the ants, sea horses, and snakes in cabinets. You can’t help but wonder… at least, I can’t… why on earth would someone eat these things?
A few months ago, I decided to find out. I bought some traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) books. I drank snake booze. I spent hours at Beijing’s TCM university museum. And I spent weeks asking questions of my TCM-expert friend, Chloe Chen.
Today, in the first of the series: why in the heck you might want to start eating snake…
|Snake wine for sale in a Qingdao, Shandong Province pharmacy.|
Wild stories, photos and recipes, after the jump!
Back in the Tang Dynasty, in the late 700s or so, an unnamed villager suffered from a terrible skin disease. His entire body was covered in boils and lesions. Well into his adulthood, though, his skin started to unexpected clear up. Everyone in the village was shocked. “What did you do,” his neighbors asked, “You look so good!” “Nothing,” the man replied, “But I have been drinking a lot of this wine, here.” In the bottom of the vat of wine they found a snake. A large, dead, rotting snake. All of a sudden, the local doctors realized that snakes could perhaps clear skin diseases!
A thousand years later, in the 1500s, a doctor called Li Shizhen decided to investigate these wild claims. He’d spent his life researching folk remedies like these, which he’d ultimately combine into a 52-volume medical textbook called “The Compendium of Materia Medica” (本草纲目). The book was so well-respected that it remained the leading medical textbook well into the 20th century, and is used widely in Chinese hospitals today. His takeaway? Yes sir, snakes should be used to treat “stubborn dry scale-like skin diseases, skin eruptions and rashes.”
Across China, and so much of Asia, you’ll still find snakes preserved in barrels and bottles of booze, everywhere.
At one restaurant in Qingdao, Lao Zhuan Cun, the manager is a man named Sui. His snake-bite is rice wine, infused with a gutted long-nosed pit viper. He also chucks in some heads of ginseng, and a handful of wolfberries, and lets it sit in a closet for a month. A 50g glass of this goes for 18 RMB (about $2.75, half the cost of a Budweiser in New York.)
“Many people like it,” Sui offered, “especially men.” I tried it. I liked it. It tasted like booze and it made me sleepy. But it didn’t do much else.
One farmer that Chloe talked to, Zhang Changmeng, had suffered from terrible arthritis his entire life. So he took to drinking snake booze, and was cured within two years. So he claims, at least. Being a snake farmer, albeit a TCM-certified one, I’m still not convinced. But someone clearly is: he sells sixty tons of snakes a year, at $60 a kilo, from his “Red Plum Snake Farm” in Shandong.
|Snake head wine from a restaurant in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.|
“Snake powder not only helps with arthritis,” Farmer Zhang insists, “but also eliminates toxins, clears your skin, and keeps you young.”
If you want to make your own snake powder, the recipe is pretty simple. Gut and skin your snake, then bake it at a low, steady heat. (Zhang wouldn’t pass on the time or the temperature… he said they were closely-guarded trade secrets.) When it’s “ready” (whatever that means), grind it in a mortar and pestle. I’m sure a coffee grinder would work just as well. But be warned, it’s stinky.
A cheaper and easier way to ingest snake is ground and packaged. There’s a pill you can buy at any Chinese pharmacy called Vitiligo, for acne and other persistent skin problems, and another called Pure Zaoys, for lower back and leg pain.
For more specific problems, though, you’ll have to dive deeper. The gallbladder of a Chinese rat snake, for example, is the size of a large soybean, and it’s supposed to be great for bad eyesight. Farmer Zhang sells fresh ones for about 75 cents each. You can slice them into thin pieces, or grind them up.
The piece de resistance, meanwhile is the snake’s, ahem, anatomy. I found this jar of them in a Guangzhou seafood palace, where Michelle insisted they were mushrooms. “Excuse me,” I called over to a waitress. “Is this a snake’s weewee?” (I used a Chinese word that translates directly as “Little Little Brother,” and is used almost exclusively by small boys.) She nodded, laughing, and walked off.
|Snake penis wine, from a restaurant in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.|
I forget how much the restaurant was selling their snake penis liquor for, but from Farmer Zhang the weewees aren’t cheap. They’re $3,000 a kilo. But since they’re sure to “warm the kidney” and “enrich your qi,” maybe that’s worth it.
Much of this article is directly lifted from an article I wrote a few months ago, with research by me and my friend Chloe Chen, and published in my magazine, “The World of Chinese.” You should buy the magazine–subscribe to it, in fact! It’s quite awesome.