A Vietnamese Delicacy, Cobra Cuisine Is Not For the Squeamish

As tourism grows in Vietnam, brave diners see if snake meat really tastes like chicken

Truong Xuan Chu moves without fear. He reaches into a cage and pulls out a cobra, perhaps five feet long, and holds it in the air, grasping the head firmly. The reptile obliges Mr. Chu, flaring its hood and hissing. Nearby, snakes of various stripes and sizes rest atop some small trees and slip in and out of a tank of murky water.

Chu is no animal collector. This is not the reptile house of the local zoo. He is a restaurant owner, and he has just chosen your dinner. Of course, you are delighted with his selection. In a den of poisonous snakes, it's best not to be finicky.

A visit to Chu's establishment, just outside Hanoi, is a good idea for the gastronomically adventurous. It makes a fine evening for those who will try anything once. The fainthearted should consider themselves forewarned.

Chu's is one of about 40 snake restaurants clustered in what were once a few villages near the Vietnamese capital. Urban sprawl has brought the city close by, but the area, called Gia Lam, still feels like the countryside.

Chu's family has served snake for four generations, and their place has the patina of age. The dining rooms and kitchens are set around a small brick courtyard, and most of the buildings have roofs of clay tile or thatch.

Off to one side is a doorway leading to a separate courtyard where Chu keeps venomous reptiles. Next to the kitchen is a cement bin holding nonlethal snakes.

Here, snake meat is thought to be something of an aphrodisiac, but Chu's is not the place for a romantic dinner for two. Most of the tables are set for large parties, because eating snake is a festive event, typically enjoyed by groups of people in the mood for celebration.

The restaurant is busiest on holidays and weekends, especially at the end of the month, when workers get paychecks and bonuses.

Not all the diners are Vietnamese. The country is enjoying a vogue these days as Vietnam's Communist leaders pursue an open-door economic policy, and Chu reports a growing number of foreign snake-eaters, mainly Chinese from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore, but also a few Americans. ''The foreigners who come here to have snake meat,'' Chu says, ''usually come with delegations -- they are businessmen and investors.''

For the first-timer, a cup of green tea and some words of welcome begin the repast. Chu insists that he likes his work, but adds that he would switch professions if something came along that matched his skills. (It was hard to image exactly what such an opportunity might be, but never mind.)

Even so, Chu exudes prosperity and contentment, wearing a beige shirt buttoned at the collar and gray trousers held up by, to no one's surprise, a snakeskin belt. His motorcycle, a Honda model that is currently the rage of Hanoi, bears a sticker reading: ''Snake is our tradition.''

After the introductions, it's time for the viewing of the reptiles. Chu selects a cobra, a premier variety and the most expensive, for our meal.

Then comes a ritual that separates those who can kill their dinner from those who like the steak but not the slaughterhouse. (If you are squeamish and are still reading this story, now is the time to go on to something else.)

Chu grasps the snake by the head, makes a small incision and offers the heart to the senior member of the party.

On the night we visited, this honor fell to me. I must admit, I demurred. I dawdled. After much hesitation, it occurred to me it was just another form of sashimi, and I ate it.

During this slightly traumatic appetizer course, Chu and his family started preparing our dinner. We sat at a table set with a white tablecloth, chopsticks, and small bowls.

As with most Vietnamese meals, Chu's 11-course snake feast began with soup: small morsels of cobra folded into an egg-drop base along with mushrooms, lemon grass, cilantro, and ground pepper. The soup is served alongside fresh greens such as mint and cilantro, cucumber spears, and an astringent fruit, like a small, unripe fig.

Next came a small plate of ground snake meat fried with ginger, chili powder, and other spices. We scooped it up with freshly made rice crackers.

Then Chu presented a dish of stir-fried cobra, flavored with scallions, ginger, garlic, and soy sauce. This gave us our first chance to taste the meat itself: rich and fatty, about as resilient as squid, but with more texture and flavor.

Searching for a comparison, I asked our Vietnamese guide, who was enjoying snake for just the second time, what he thought the meat tasted like. He thought for a moment, chewing. I began to worry that he would say chicken. ''It's like frog,'' he offered instead.

A quintessentially Vietnamese dish followed: cobra nem, or spring rolls. Morsels of cobra were spiced and combined with herbs, wrapped in rice paper, and fried. The nem were served with nuoc mam, the ubiquitous Vietnamese fish sauce, for dipping.

Then more and more dishes appeared: cobra meat roasted with spices; steamed rice mixed with small yellow beans; batter-dipped pieces of snake meat, deep-fried into fritters; snakeskin chips (a little like pork rinds, only more colorful); morsels of snake pate wrapped in leaves.

After nine courses, we were about ready to ask for the check. But Chu insisted we sample his snake stew, made with traditional herbs.

The final course was a broth made, Chu said, from the snake's backbone and flavored with cilantro, pepper, and ginger.

Outside the window near our table we could see into the courtyard with the venomous snakes. After a meal of cobra, it's hard to escape one conclusion: Better that we eat them than they eat us.

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