I Ate a Cobra and Drank Its Blood
By Charles Wetzel
I recently became aware of the existence of cobras in Taiwan via an article in the Taipei Times. According to the newspaper article, there have been two recent incidents at Taiwanese hospitals involving people who were bitten by cobras and then proceeded to catch the cobra and bring it in (in one case, alive in a plastic food storage jar), creating an awkward situation for the hospital attendants who then didn't know what to do with the snakes. According to the article, there are three species of cobras in Taiwan. Soon after reading the article in the Taipei Times, I became interested in a roadside stall near my ya fang (room) in Fongshan, Kaohsiung County. It had a sign over it depicting a cobra. I decided that I must make it a priority to eat a cobra. Unfortunately, when I first visited, the stall was closed and the woman next door could not tell me when it would open (I found out later that it opens at 5:30 PM), but I ran and got my camera nevertheless and took the picture below. Fast forward to yesterday morning — I was teaching my CE1 students (advanced-level English speakers who are in middle school), and I decided to use cobra meat as a discussion topic. The information they conveyed to me on the subject was relatively scant, but at least I was able to ascertain that one of the students had seen a cobra before, that the meat is considered good for men's health, and that the snakes are grown on snake farms rather than caught wild.
After class, I trekked over to the cobra stall, but unfortunately it was not open; however, a middle-aged woman was sweeping up branches in front of it, and when asked in Mandarin by me when the stall would open, she said 5:30 PM. I went home, took a nap, and then came back that night for some cobra meat. By the way, the picture below is of the menu for the cobra stall:The first thing I ordered was the "boneless snake meat soup." Although I am not sure of the Chinese pronunciation, those characters, when read using the Korean pronunciation (I speak Korean at Korean Language Proficiency Test Level 5) it is "mu-gol-sa-(r)yuk." The cost for the soup was 100 NTD (about three American dollars). As I waited, the gentleman who ran the stall went and boiled some cobra meat in a pot. He even let me take pictures. Here is one that I took of him cooking up my meal:The taste was similar to chicken, and the broth contained thin strips of ginger to enhance the taste. The soup was served with a pink plastic disposable dish filled with a brown sauce; it was indeed delicious to pick the cobra meat out with bamboo chopsticks, dunk it in the sauce, and eat it that way. Otherwise, the cobra soup was rather bland, but with the sauce, it was fairly delicious (at least as a one-time novelty). Here is a photo I took of the soup and sauce, with a piece of meat in the chopsticks:Well, since I was in a good mood and really wanted to have a quality dining experience, I decided to go for the cobra's blood liquor ([Chinese pronunciation uncertain; Korean reading is "sa-hyeol-ju"] nope, it's a real beverage, not something Klingons on Star Trek drink). Unfortunately, the smell was rather off-putting, and it was not particularly tasty. However, with great effort, I managed to finish the glass. The price was right — only 50 NTD, or about $1.50 in American currency. I scratched out a question in Chinese characters on an old piece of paper asking him about the alcohol content and he said the alcohol content was about 20% for the cobra's blood liquor. Interesting. Rather similar to Korean soju in both tastelessness and strength... Here is a picture of the cobra's blood liquor:I decided to take another picture with myself actually holding the glass to prove this whole photo essay was not a hoax. Here we go!Interestingly enough, the same stall in Kaohsiung County sells another type of cobra liquor. This variety does not explicitly contain cobra's blood, and is twice as expensive, at 100 NTD. It appears that the liquor is made by fermentation with sections of snake meat in old, re-used 58% Kinmen kaoliang liquor bottles. Looks like a rather grotesque Area 51 experiment...The fellow who ran the place was actually very nice about allowing me to take pictures, and even went as far as to take the cobra out of its cage with his bare hands! Although he had a metal instrument normally used to pick snakes up, he didn't use it. Instead, he simply stuck his hand in, grabbed the snake, and pulled the snake through the ring formed by his fingers until he got to the head. In this way, the snake was unable to bite him. Then he held it up for me to take a picture. And here is that picture:Now, this little section of the photo essay is going to be about the biology of the Taiwan cobra, or Naja atra (subspecies: Formosa). I was curious about the cobras that inhabit the same island I inhabit, so I did a little bit of research and ultimately gleaned some additional knowledge from three Web sites that will be appended to the end of this photo essay. Here is what I learned. First of all, there are multiple varieties of Naja atra (Chinese cobra), and at first, none of the varieties of cobra I could find matched the one the man had shown me in the cage. However, further research using Google Images revealed that the subspecies Naja atra Formosa is very light in color, whereas the varieties on the Asian continent tend to be darker in coloration. Here is a picture of the lightly-colored Naja atra Formosa in its cage at the roadside stall:First of all, when discussing any animal, it is important to discuss its life cycle. The Naja atra is born from eggs, of which the female tends to lay between seven and 25 per year. When they hatch, they are around 20 centimeters; at maturity, they tend to range from 90 centimeters to 1.2 meters. However, males can grow as large as 1.94 meters, and females as large as 1.64 meters. Females are very careful in guarding their eggs. Naja atra is oviparous.
The appearance of the snake is dark in color for the mainland Asian varieties, and light in color for the Formosan variety. The number of scales for males is higher than that of females. When threatened, or "vexed," to put it in the words of the Yangmingshan National Park document on the snake, the snake raises about 1/3 of its body and flattens the area near its head into a "rice-spoon" shape. Therefore, it is sometimes called the rice-spoon cobra. The snake is also very similar in appearance to another species of cobra, and therefore an accurate scale count must be taken in order to make sure a given specimen is not actually a member of a species of cobra with a similar appearance.
In terms of feeding habits, Naja atra tends to eat rodents, frogs, and toads. Occasionally, it even eats other snakes. It prefers to hide out under objects that conceal it and then strike its prey.
The distribution of the Naja atra cobra is of course China (mostly southern China). They are especially abundant near Hong Kong, in Guizhou, and on Hainan Island. In the case of the Guizhou variety, it can spit poison up to 2 meters (other varieties of Naja atra can also spit poison, but not as much or as far). Varieties on the Asian mainland tend to be darker in color, even black. Varieties in Taiwan tend to be much lighter in color. In addition to China/Taiwan, the Naja atra is also found in Vietnam and Laos, and it is possible it also exists in Thailand. Although only the Guizhou variety spits a great deal, all varieties are highly poisonous. The Taiwan variety is the #4 attacker of humans and the #3 killer of humans in Taiwan. The bite often causes extensive levels of tissue necrosis and is fatal in about 10% of cases. It causes excruciating pain. Thankfully, the anti-venom is widespread, so fatality rates have declined significantly. According to a book I read about the Formosan aboriginal tribes, there were actually aboriginal "witch doctor" types who would take a hefty fee to suck the snake's poison out of a wound. The victim usually recovered when this treatment was administered. As soon as the victim was bitten, the snake would be caught and tied up. The presumption was that the snake contained some sort of spirit. If the person recovered, the snake would be released; if the person died, the snake would be killed. This is the snake-related lore of the Taiwanese aboriginal people, who included such tribes as the Paiwan, the Pepohoans, the Amias, etc. The natural habitat of the snake is on mountains, in swamps (like mangroves), and even in cultivated fields.
The experience of eating a cobra and drinking liquor made from its blood was a unique one. I believe it is mainly a novelty, as the soup is expensive and tastes little different from chicken (which is of course much less expensive), but it was an interesting experience nevertheless. The biology of the cobra is fascinating, and surely it is something of which hikers in the Southeast Asian mountains, fields, and swamps should be careful.