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Chinese snake wine



"Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die". This is certainly true if you follow the example of Bill Ratliff. In fact; I am surprised that he survived. I bear no responsibility for passing on Bill's advice:

"I have seen much talk of food in China, but I have not noticed anything about drinking (while or separate from eating) in China or the Chinese-influenced countries of the region. Moving quickly beyond tea, an interesting enough topic, most Chinese regions have their own beers, which are often very good, though some lousy American wines (e.g. Budweiser) are often available. The drinking of Western-style wine is increasing, particularly in the larger cities on the coast, though production of such wines (Great Wall brand, etc.) in China, usually in cooperation with a foreign company, is rudimentary at best. I have never found one much better than the lowest grade Gallo though I keep trying and welcome any recommendations. The most famous Chinese-style "wine" is a strong one called Mao Tai, though it is expensive and many Chinese are more likely to chug the much cheaper but similar Er Guo Tou. The Taiwanese counterpart is a Tequila-like Gao Liang. Speaking of Tequila and its little submerged worms, there is the Chinese drink that most fascinates and revolts most foreigners: snake wine. It is generally a rice wine bottled with one or more submerged snakes. Most Chinese, especially younger ones, do not drink it, but you find it in many restaurants and can buy it around the country and region. In China there are three snake wines, five snake wines and others. (They also have wines made of intimate body parts that shall go un-identified, though Paul Simon was probably alluding to this wine in one of his comments.) In Chinese restaurants you often find snake wine in huge, broad-necked bottles or jars, the snake or snakes, often quite large, flopped at the bottom but sometimes filling a major portion of the jar. The restaurateur usually ladles out as much as you want. Or you can buy it in smaller bottles to take home with you. A clown on one tour I led on the Li River through the spectacular karst mountains quaffed a bottle of one-snake wine and then grabbed the snake by its "tail" and dramatically lowered it slowly into his mouth like a circus sword swallower, the boat-load of his friends loudly gasping at (and cheering on) the stunt. Some of this snake wine really isn't bad and if it were decanted and peddled in a separate bottle with a name like Martel (and no snakes), some Westerners might even find it good, though for most it would still be a taste that would require some cultivating. Some snake wines have other items added. Two weeks ago in Vietnam I stopped at a small restaurant between Da Nang and Hue and found tiny sea horses packaged for sale, intended for soaking in and flavoring wine. I couldn't find much snake wine in Singapore's "Chinatown" (the traditional "Chinatown" since, of course, Singapore itself is a "Chinatown") besides simple bottles with miserable worm-like snakes flopped on the bottom. (I confess I didn't really look very hard.) Vietnam (and Laos, which sold Vietnam-bottled snake wine) was a different matter altogether. There the snake was very artistically coiled with its head stretching up to the top of the bottle, tongue out, peering through the wine and challenging anyone to take a sip. I have never seen wine so artfully bottled in China. But the Vietnamese wine stank and was tastier (not necessarily a good thing), though that extra potency may have been just the je ne sais quoi that helped the Vietnamese whip the Chinese in their most recent (1979) war".

My doubts: It is not clear to me if the snake is drunk, dead, or dead drunk. I gather that the snake gives a special taste to the wine. The Chinese undoubtedly cook and eat snakes. I imagine that drunk snake tastes good.

Ronald Hilton - 1/14/02


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