Snakeblood in Taiwan

Posted by Mishqah Schippers on 29 July 2021

The stupid things we do for a thrill – Like tucking into exotic animals just because they’re taboo and give you the grils.

Words: Keith Bain | Illustration: Jess Nicholson

The hauntings began even before the unholy deed had taken place.

I say unholy, although we all know that to some folks, eating strange animals is a spiritual undertaking. Consuming wild beasts – or even humans – in order to absorb their powers pre-dates history. As does using animals to staunch afflictions and cure illnesses.

My intentions were, shamefully, far less noble. Unlike my nomadic forebears, I wasn’t eating an eland’s heart for sustenance or survival.

I had no legitimate intention whatsoever. I did it on a dare, to satisfy my curiosity, to expand my list of traveller boasts.

Like many fast-evolving cities, Taipei is a cocktail of fast-forward futurism spiked by traditional beliefs. You can be in a high-tech, earthquake-proof skyscraper one moment, the next in a pagoda-style temple burning ‘ghost money’ as an offering to Kuanyin, goddess of mercy. Which, as you know, is how you transfer cash to loved ones in the afterlife.

Taipei’s also blessed by the food gods. It brims with unusual flavours and exotic aromas. At Shilin Night Market, among the trinket stalls, electronics dealers and sidewalk masseuses, every imaginable Taiwanese snack is displayed. Delicious bao stuffed with pork; oyster omelettes; bubble tea, avocado milkshakes and squeezed-to-order sugarcane juice; and – of course – ‘stinky tofu’, a beloved fermented soy delicacy that reeks of old socks.

It’s not all so innocent, though. Deliciousness abounds, but so do dreadful dishes, especially deadly if you’re the thing that’s being snacked upon.

In this city that’s forever racing towards the future, I was regularly served shark-fin soup in fancy restaurants, and in bars we snacked on deep-fried bumblebees by the bowlful. One delicacy – this time a Vietnamese import – was fertilised duck egg. You literally eat a baby bird before it’s even hatched.

Scrumptious, although a bit creepy.
But I was young, dumb, and eager to experiment with the exotic. And so it was that I found myself seated at a Formica-topped four-seater in a dingy cubbyhole-sized restaurant in a notorious covered market known, unironically, as Snake Alley.

I’d wondered through it before to experience the ick and eww factor, gawp at the snake-handlers fondling defanged cobras, witness cooped-up adders and constrictors in glass cages, displayed as still-alive-but-not-for-long menu items.

Although now banned, 20 years ago there were still public performances of snakes being slaughtered. Sometimes skinned alive for the mere amusement of passersby. Can you imagine?

Calling the cramped space a restaurant is a bit of a stretch, too. This was not somewhere you went for sustenance but to dip into some kind of dark magic. You went in there to take the life-force from a snake, suck down its superpowers by consuming its bits and pieces.

Or, in my case, just to satisfy my compulsive curiosity, live up to a dare.

There was no ritual or ceremony; to the restaurateur this was simply another serving of broth in which floated two pieces of white meat. Traditionally, it was served to fix a fever or treat stubborn skin ailments.

The soup was part of a combo-package. On the side were two shot glasses. In one was a hit of snake bile. Apart from improving eyesight, drinking it apparently cools the liver, curing everything from constipation to tinnitus. It was mixed with alcohol, presumably to take the edge off its ghastly taste.

The other shooter contained a few drops of blood, also mixed with a strong spirit. According to one ancient Chinese belief, warm snake’s blood works like Viagra. The more venomous the snake,

The more potent the results. I’d heard you could order cups of the stuff but neither my stomach nor my wallet were up to it.

Trouser-snake jokes abound, sure, but it’s no funnier than believing in the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo of powdered rhino horn or crushed pangolin scales.

Also on the menu? Snake venom. And they could apparently procure serpent semen. Snake penis wine was a thing, too. As was plain snake wine – made by putting a snake in sake along with other creatures such as turtles and insects and letting it steep for months. Eek, no!

Despite ordering the basic combo, I ate and drank with long teeth. And a heavy heart. It wasn’t just the taboo factor, it was the unsettling sensation that I was crossing a line.

And cross it I surely did. Because ever since that unholy night 20 years ago, some uncanny connection has existed between myself and all of snake-kind.

It’s as though they know what I did, and they refuse to let it go. They taunt me in my dreams, plotting their revenge; they meet me on mountain trails, waiting for just the right moment to strike.

The nightmares and the spooky sensation I feel in the pit of my being are not the ghosts of malevolent snakes come to haunt me, though. They’re feelings of shame.

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