When Chinese New Year arrives in January, revelers will celebrate the arrival of the year of the Dragon. Many will observe the event by enjoying an Oriental feast of traditional fare.
During my travels in China, I tried numerous unusual foods such as pig penis, chicken feet and duck tongue worthy of Anthony Bourdain, but one local alcoholic potion left me a bit squirmy – literally.
The South China town of Yangshuo is a scenic haven nestled in the Karst Mountains, which have been celebrated for generations by poets and painters. The area is also known for its unique food specialties, which among other things include snake and snake bile wine.
Curious about this local delicacy, I ask my guide Yan Dao Min if he could take me to a restaurant for an authentic local meal. Yan is not a guide that I hired. He is an English-speaking part-time hustler, who also goes by Michael and John, who appears at my hotel door each morning, eager to sell me tours at triple the price of the travel booths that line the streets in this tourist enclave.
At first he balks when I mention the snake liquor, telling me it is a drink “only for man.” According to Yan, snake wine will purportedly make a man very powerful and virile. When I ask him what would happen if a woman drank it, he shakes his head in a shameful manner.
After much cajoling (and after he realizes I am not about to pay him $80 for a day trip that I can arrange on my own for $15) he agrees to take me out for a serpent smorgasbord. The task is more difficult than I anticipated, because apparently the timing of my visit does not coincide with snake season, and many of the reptiles are hibernating in their holes during the winter months.
After an additional day of trying to dissuade me, Yan finally takes me to a run-down restaurant in an area of town devoid of tourists. As I look at the menu, he eagerly points out that snake is featured prominently, along with mudsnail and dog.
My guide speaks in Chinese with the proprietors of the eatery and they glance at me nervously. He asks me again if I am certain I want to try the snake liquor. He poses the question the same way one might ask a friend if he or she is positive about having the name of his or her ex tattooed across their chest.
Nervously he leads me into a ramshackle kitchen with a wok on a fireplace fashioned from an oil drum. Alarmingly, a cute little dog is tethered to the stove on a chain.
In the back, on a rickety shelf, I am shown a massive jug crammed with snakes coiled in a yellow-hued liquid. It looks like a display of preserved creatures from the Natural History Museum.
The proprietor, still eyeing me suspiciously, wrenches open the jar and carefully pours me a juice-sized glass filled to the brim.
According to Yan, the wine is made with three types of poisonous snakes. It is believed that the more deadly the snake the more potent the effects of the wine. The snakes are added to the jar while they are still alive and steeped in rice wine for at least two months. The snakes are gutted and their gall bladders bled so that the poison dissolves in the liquor; the venom is denatured by the ethanol in the alcohol.
The smell is sweet and pungent, reminiscent of Boone’s Farm or Night Train. As I raise my glass for my first taste, I notice some inquisitive Chinese peeping into the restaurant at the fair-haired female daring to consume this legendary substance.
The wine begins with sweetness up front, an acidic Saki-like flavor, followed by a strong burning sensation that numbs my tongue. The taste slowly slides down my throat like a liqueur, but finishes with a slight hint of tropical fruit that makes it somewhat bearable.
As I sip slowly, I notice the peeking locals begin to laugh, believing that I am too weak to finish. The more I imbibe, the heavier the drink becomes. Fortunately my stir-fried snake arrives and I am able to balance it with my dinner.
By the time I polish off the last drop, I am stuffed with both liquid and solid snake. The curious onlookers have disappeared. The empty glass stares back at me as a reminder of my “authentic” Chinese experience.
As I prepare to step way from the table, my unwearied companion, Yan, eyes at me with astonishment. He grins widely and declares me a “very powerful woman!”