Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

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

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

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

Article excerpt

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. …

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