Wednesday, August 11, 2010
"They Actually Eat That:" Habu. (AKA Snake Wine: Part 1)
Oh, Japan. And China. You knew you would be up here at some point. You have topped NUMEROUS 'weird food' listings, but this particular culinary endeavor is not one that I hear much about.
Nearly every country with 'hot' snakes has some ritualistic way of getting them into one's system. A 'hot' snake is any venomous snake capable of killing a person; it is very easy to see why eating one would be a symbol of considerable courage and therefore praise. Hell, even the U.S. is in on this one.
Asia takes the consumption of venomous snakes to the extreme. They really buy into the whole 'snake oil as panacea' thing. Cobras are pretty much universally touted to cure everything from sexual impotency to baldness to poor eyesight, whether they're killed alive, riled by a mongoose and drained of blood, or steeped in wine.
Snake wine is a VERY popular aphrodisiac. It is found throughout Southeast Asia, from Thailand to Japan. No, I am not a geography expert, but you get the point.
The recipe for snake wine is simple: 1. Get a large bottle, 2. Catch a venomous snake without dying, 3. Let it age for 6 months - a year; enjoy responsibly. By "responsibly," I mean "one shot glass at a time;" snake wine is really strong. It is not so because of the venom, which is denatured by the alcohol; the snake, err, craps in the booze as it's slowly drowning. Perhaps this custom is why the kanji for 'snake,' 蛇, can also translate to 'heavy drinker.'
You will find snake wine almost everywhere in Southeast Asia. It supposedly originated in Vietnam, but can be found wherever oriental dining customs reign supreme.
Okinawa is not technically Japanese. The people there do not speak the language. They are a unique island culture that has been there since the Paleolithic. That does not stop them from doing like the rest of the world and putting their local venomous snake, the Okinawan habu (Trimeresurus flavoviridis, although any habu may be used), in alcohol for super-Viagra. It's called 'habushu' (ハブ酒).
They Actually Eat That?!
Just as with many, many other venomous snakes, the habu is not just stored in alcohol and left to look intimidating. The Okinawans have made use of its meat as well. Unlike cobra meat enthusiasts (which I will save for another day), the natives of Okinawa do not care if the snake's meat is particularly fresh.
These snakes are dried, waiting to be used in soup. Picture from here, which also has stuff on Shirohebi.
Habu wine in particular is also ritualized. Check out the red covers on these wine jars. They resemble alcoholic offerings given to Shinto gods, showing the respect for the snake's potency. This can, of course, be interpreted in multiple senses. Such adornments are usually not put on other types of snake wine.
I wonder why they sent in mongooses to keep the habu population under control? The native people seem to have their own ways of dealing with snakes.