DETOURS

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 December, 2003, 12:00am

It's good for your heart and circulation. It's a cure for asthma, rheumatism and flatulence. It makes you live longer, and it makes you more virile, too. These are some of the medical myths and maybes to keep in mind as you prepare to swallow the still-beating heart of a freshly killed snake, served in a cocktail of alcohol, bile and the dead serpent's blood.


Another thought to console yourself with is that it's definitely fresh. After all, it's brought to your table live, then killed and slit open before your eyes.


The possibly stomach-churning slaughter and butchery that precedes the serving of food in the snake restaurants of northern Vietnam can overshadow the fact that snakes make a rather tasty dish. Eight or more dishes, in fact, if you take a trip to Phong Do, the best-known restaurant in Hanoi's 'snake village' - Quan Long Bien - 7km out of the capital.


The restaurant's entrance is lined with cages containing large, live snakes, and racks of snake wine, in case anyone should have the slightest doubt about what's on the menu.


If you're part a big group, you can pay up to 600,000 Vietnamese dong (HK$294) and feast raucously with your friends on a large cobra, washed down with alcohol and bile (a combination that has the same effect as Red Bull and vodka). Or, if you're after a romantic meal for two, a metre-long, poisonous snake served in eight different ways will cost you just 180,000 dong.


First comes a thick, eggy soup containing slithers of meat that you can only trust are from the snake that staff whisked off to the kitchen minutes earlier. Next comes sauted serpent with citronella and chilli, which is probably the most agreeable of the dishes. Snake is surprisingly tender, and its taste is a cross between chicken and something gamier. Dish No.3 is finely chopped snake served with sesame seeds, garlic and peanuts. Then comes the most obviously reptilian of all the dishes: fried snakeskin with a sweet and sour dip. The skin is chewy and sinewy, and lined with ribbed muscle that makes it difficult to swallow. It's not unlike chewing on stale pork scratchings, but the notion that you are eating snake muscle can make you feel a little queasy.


Dish No.6 is snake rolls, similar to the traditional nem spring rolls, but a bit greasier (and with snake inside, of course). By this time, you're probably all reptiled-out - and if you're not, the final two dishes will ensure you are. The penultimate treat is snake innards served with rice (the less said about that the better), while the grand finale is snake gruel - an unappetising-looking thick and slimy concoction that tastes as revolting as it looks and sounds.


This exotic eight-course menu probably wasn't quite the way the reptiles were eaten originally. The first recorded instances of them being served up is during the Tang dynasty (618 to 907AD). They were used even earlier - about 100 AD - to cure haemorrhoids and sore throats. For centuries now, snakes have held a fascination for chefs and healers as a potent and exciting dish and cure, while a whole industry has sprung up around snake bile as an alleged cure for a multitude of illnesses, including whooping cough and skin infections.


However, the health benefits of cooking snake are not quite universal, as one chef in Hanoi discovered last month. He was two days into his job when a sea snake he tried to fish out of a tank sank its fangs into his arm. He died that day in hospital.