Warning: This post contains images and videos that might make you squeamish and shows animal slaughter.
The day was the 8th of March. International Women’s Day. We were coming back from beautiful Halong Bay and that night we decided to go to Le Mat snake village to try the snake banquet. There are several restaurants here specialising in snake, so not knowing which one to go to I asked our taxi driver to take us to the best one he knows. Through narrow and often dark streets he took us to this place that was in the middle of nowhere! There was alot of commotion at the restaurant when we arrived – restaurant staff were yelling things to one another, kids running around trying to grab a glimpse of the animals being slaughtered…
The owner points out the snake pen to us and says that we have a choice between grass snake (700000vnd/kg; AU$35/kg) or cobra (850000vnd/kg; AU$42.50/kg). We thought since we’re here and we’ll only be doing this once in our lives that we’d might as well go for the cobra (which weighed 0.8kg). The process of killing the cobra involved first cutting out it’s fangs, slicing it open to drain it’s blood and then it’s head would be cut off. It was then sliced open again for it’s gall bladder and heart.
The blood was mixed with rice wine and the gall bladder was popped; oozing a very dark green fluid. Ewww! It was then mixed with rice wine and turned fluorescent green! We were brought to our table and bottles containing the snake’s blood and bile were placed on our table, the heart was served in a little cup for one lucky person…
I had always grown up with the thought that snake blood was for men only. It is said to boost their health, strength and fertility. Nature’s own viagra. But we had agreed to down the blood and bile together and that the loser of scissors, paper, rock would be the unlucky one who has to finish off the heart. Ant chose scissors and I.. Paper! Argh! Noooo….
As the blood and bile was mixed with rice wine, it was the predominant flavour that we could taste, which was similar to sake. The blood wasn’t so bad, just tasted like watered down blood, only alcoholic. Now the bile was something we both weren’t looking forward to, I mean it was oddly fluorescent green and bile! For some reason I had imagined that it was going to be as bad as tequila ( I hate tequila!), but to my surprise it wasn’t so bad.. I can’t really describe the taste of it as it was masked with rice wine and we didn’t want to spend time getting to know the taste. Then after that ordeal, my time was up, the time for me to have the heart. After about 5 false starts, I had swallowed the goddamn thing. Luckily for me that it wasn’t still beating and was fairly small.
So now that hard part was over, it was time for a feast to celebrate our bravery. A 10 course banquet was prepared for us using all parts of the snake, from skin, flesh, organs, fat and even bones! We had no say in how the snake was going to be prepared for each course, it was simply brought out to our table when it was done and the waitress would hastily tell us what the dish was before running off, leaving me with very little chance of asking her to repeat it again. We managed to score a copy of the menu but the English translation is quite hilarious.
We start off the banquet with snake soup (súp rắn), which is fairly similar to shark fin’s soup. The clear broth is welcoming and washes away any lingering taste of blood and bile left in our mouths and it is silky with its strands of egg and shredded pieces of snake meat.
Next up was soft fried snake skin (da rắn chiên mềm). I had secretly wished that the snake skin would be crispy fried, to resemble fish crackling, but instead it wasn’t so the skin was a little too chewy for my liking. I reckon we would have finished the entire plate if it was crispy fried (it was an option on the menu though).
One of my favourite Vietnamese dishes is bò lá lốt so I was a little excited when a dish of minced snake rolled in betal leaves (chả rắn lá lốt) was brought to our table. The meat wasn’t as juicy as its beef counterpart (as it was fried instead of grilled) but it was still delicious nonetheless. Would you believe me if I told you that it tasted like chicken? However, I did find that snake kind of tasted like other animals for the other dishes.
The same filling for the above dish must have been used to make these snake spring rolls (nem rắn). This and the previous had got to be the two highlights of the banquet. As we’re in the north, delicate sheets of rice paper were used to wrap the minced snake making these spring rolls super crunchy. I could have devoured plenty more of these babies.
The fried snake offal (lòng rắn xào) dish featured every internal organ of the snake imaginable, from intestines to lung, liver, kidneys… You get the point. We didn’t have too much of this dish because most of the time we were trying to figure out what organ we had picked up and cautiously take small bites of the piece we had before either finishing it off or putting it back down.
To rid the somewhat metallic taste from our mouths, a plate of sticky rice with snake’s fat (xôi mỡ rắn) topped with mung beans and fried shallots was brought to us. Like I mentioned, all parts of the snake was used for this banquet. The fat from the snake would be heated up and poured over the sticky rice but surprisingly the sticky rice didn’t taste or feel fattening or greasy at all.
Now the snake meatballs (chả rắn băm viên) reminded me a little of beef without the strong meaty taste. Little balls of minced snake meat were combined with mung beans and various herbs and deep fried. The texture of the meatballs was dry and crunchy at the same time with a little hint of spices coming through.
I wasn’t kidding when I said that all parts of the snake was used for this banquet. This dish of crushed snake bones served with sesame cracker (sườn rắn với bánh đa) demonstrates this very clearly. The bones would be finely crushed and mixed with some garlic and spices; this mixture would then be fried to golden brown and served with toasted sesame crackers. I didn’t mind this dish too much, it was definitely interesting! The bones were nicely fried and crunchy.
Our last substantial dish was stewed snake in Chinese medicine broth (rắn hầm thuốc bắc). As you can see, the broth is very dark in colour, I’m not too sure of all the various components of the Chinese medicine used in this broth but I’m guessing there were lotus seeds, goji berries, Chinese dates… It’s hard to describe the taste of such a broth to those that are unfamiliar to it; but there’s a slight bitterness and sweetness to it, and it’s definitely good for you! The amount of meat on a snake is not much and the meat reminded me of eel.
We then finish off the night with snake congee (cháo rắn) which is a little on the mushy side as you can’t taste the individual grains of rice; to me, it tasted somewhat powdery. I don’t know what part of the snake was used in this congee.
So there we have it, the end of our epic snake feasting. It was definitely an experience I can tick off for sure, especially the snake’s heart! I’m glad that pretty much all of the snake was used (all but the head) and nothing went to waste.
So tell me, would you have gone for the snake’s heart, blood and bile too?
Nguyễn Văn Dực Restaurant
Address: 4 – 7 Lệ Mật – Việt Hưng (it’s at the intersection of these 2 alleyways), Long Biên, Hà Nội
Telephone: (+84) (04) 3827 2891
Mobile phone: 0975384482 & 0984381237
This is my entry to the Delicious Vietnam April 2011 blogging event, founded by A Food Lover’s Journey and Ravenous Couple and hosted by Anh Nguyen from A Food Lover’s Journey. This monthly blogging event celebrates Vietnamese cuisine by Vietnamese food lovers around the world.