snake snacks

I recently got a request to write about food--something that should not be too difficult considering that food is something I'm pretty passionate about. It is especially easy to comply to this request because I just wrote a related article for Viet Nam Cultural Window, the tourism magazine (which I play a large part in editing) published by The Gioi Publishers every two months. However, given past experience, the article requires a preface (even though--once again from past experience--it probably won't work):

WARNING: READ AT YOUR OWN RISK. This entry may contain information unappetizing to those with weak stomachs or who are opposed to eating even animals commonly considered palatable by Western standards. Furthermore, the author will not accept future complaints about its contents (though she is not opposed to compliments about her culinary bravery).

Snake snacks

So, you’ve eaten phỏ by the side of the road more times than you can count—even taken it away in a plastic bag once or twice. You’ve braved the sketchy fresh greens in bún chả and bún ốc, and tried their siblings, bún ca, bún thang, bún bo, chả ca—yeah, you’ve got the bún noodle dishes covered too. Maybe you’ve been more daring than that and ventured into the “weird meat” territory—the land of dog meat and bubbly pig skin. Perhaps you have even developed a habit of gnawing on pigs’ feet. However, if you are one of those people who prides yourself on your fearless ability to try anything, there is still one stop left for you on your tour of the more exotic foods of Hà Nội—the snake village of Lệ Mật, located just outside Hà Nội on the road to Bát Tràng, the famous ceramic village.

One Sunday afternoon, seven friends and I headed across the Long Bien Bridge to visit Bát Tràng Ceramic Village,then stopped at Lệ Mật on the way back. What ensued was not the most filling or cheapest food I have yet eaten in Việt Nam, but it was the epitome of dinner and a show.

The restaurant owner and his son welcomed us enthusiastically by dangling two writhing snakes before us and rattling off the prices and merits of each. They told us that the larger bamboo snake (800,000VNĐ) was better for eating than the smaller, more expensive cobra (1,000,000VNĐ), whose blood made for better wine. While the cobra was enticing—mainly for the exotic idea of eating a poisonous reptile—the bamboo snake and its cheaper price proved more appealing to our group of hungry twenty-somethings, half of whom are volunteers.

After checking out a room filled floor-to-ceiling with glass vats in which coiled snakes and various other animals stewed in wine, we took seats in the delightful open-air dining room and awaited our serpentine dinner-mate. Our host brought the snake right to our table and allowed us to watch as he expertly slit its belly, squirted its blood into a jar, and extracted its still-beating heart.

As we waited for our meal—a set menu of six dishes, one of which apparently disappeared en route, made from various parts of our snake, complimented by an assortment of dipping sauces and a dish of qua sung moi (traditional Vietnamese pickled figs)—our server brought shots of rice wine mixed with snake blood, which the more courageous among us used to toast our forthcoming culinary adventure. One particularly lucky individual got to add the snake’s heart to his glass. We chased that shot with a round of bile wine.

bile: just so romantic...

After the wine escapade, we began nibbling crushed snake bones. The crunchy consistency of this dish—which was served with sesame rice crackers—turned some off, but its liberal sprinkling of peanuts and sesame made it a tasty appetizer by my standards.

snake bones and sesame crackers: the new chips and salsa?

Next on the menu was grilled snake meat. The small amount of meat I was able to pull off the bones was quite good; the seasoning was superb. The following course of chả cuốn lá lốt (ground meat rolled in lolot leaves) was well flavored but, once again, bone-riddled. My favorite dish was the miniature fried spring rolls; of course, I am partial to spring rolls in general. By group consensus, the sticky rice—which claimed to be made with our snake’s fat and was topped with fried garlic—was also a hit.

If your goal is to get as much food as you can for as little money as possible, then find yourself a plastic chair and some mý xao in the Old Quarter; but for a culinary adventure and a story that will guarantee the amazement of your friends at home, venture across the Long Bien Bridge for snake snacks at Lệ Mật.

So there you have it. Any other requests? :)

a brief note on noodles:

phỏ: This word by itself can refer to one of the more famous Vietnamese dishes, and certainly the most famous of Hà Nội origin. However, the word phỏ also refers to the specific type of noodle used--a thin, flat rice noodle. This noodle soup features a clear broth, either beef or chicken, and some green onions. It is best with lemon (have I mentioned that Vietnamese lemons are green?--and no, they're not limes), black pepper, and chili added. (This is one of my favorite parts of eating phỏ--the process of doctoring it up and mixing it, while the delightful aroma wafts into my face.) There are many other uses of the phỏ noodle that I don't mention in this article.

bún: this is another variety of rice noodle, but this one is round and even skinnier--sort of like a pale, flimsy version of angel-hair spaghetti. The dishes I mention in that paragraph are various dishes that incorporate bún noodles--bún with beef, bún with snails, bún soup, bún soup with fish, bún with grilled fish...

mý xao: is (did you guess it yet?) yet another type of noodle. This variety is egg based and curly--close kin to that friend of the stereotypical college student, the Ramen noodle. Xao means pan-fried. This dish is usually topped with veggies and meat, or both, and is quite delicious in a greasy, comfort-food way.

A noodle is not just a noodle: If the number of different names and seemingly minuscule distinctions seems ridiculous and unfathomable to you, then don't let me get started on the different types of rice and "cakes." But believe me, I was right there with you at first. It seems silly, but to put it into perspective, just think what it would be like to be a foreigner who hardly ever eats bread who is just arriving in a Western culture. Think of learning the difference between French bread, wheat bread, focaccia, bagels, muffins, and croissants. Alternately, think of all the varieties of Italian pasta; to call noodles "noodles" in Việt Nam is like calling lasagna "spaghetti."

This is clearly not a comprehensive look at the noodle, the "for fun" Vietnamese food (rice is what you eat every day because you have to, noodles are what you eat for fun), but hopefully it helped you at least understand the snake article a little better!

1 comment:

  1. Your culinary bravery is awesome! You leave me in the dust... and I will make no attempt to catch up! Auntie M