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10.7.11

Blood Of The Cobra

Back in the early 90s, my friend Holly, a geophysicist with one of the Big Oils, was transferred to Indonesia for a year.  When she returned, she regaled me with stories of exotic locations and strange experiences, all of which piqued my interest in this island nation.

One of the most intriguing stories she told was of going out one night with her local hosts to drink cobra blood.  The story took hold of my imagination and for 25 years I vowed that if I made it here, that would be one of my prime goals.

Since coming here, I've eaten dog, bat, unidentifiable sea-critters, and various other exotic delicacies.  In other travels, I've downed freshly decapitated monkey brains, BBQ rat and an assortment of insects, but the thought of cobra blood would not relinquish its hold on me.

Long before leaving Texas, I told Steve and Karina that when we got to Indonesia, I had to drink cobra blood.  It was high on my list of Things To Do Before I Die.  After arriving, I would make occasional remarks about having to enjoy this experience.

Finally, after a year or so of living here, Steve, Karina and I were sitting around the apartment on a Friday night, when the topic came up.  Karina knew of a stall over by Ancol that was well-regarded, and so we piled into the car and headed out.

To set the scene, this was not some fancy restaurant serving mysterious Asian curiosities.  It was a semi-permanent shack built around a largish push-cart full of snakes and a counter for serving.  It was on the side of a fairly busy street about a block from the ocean and a tarp was all that separated us from the elements.

At the time, Karina was the only one of our group fluent in Indonesian.  Her father, Steve, has married an Indonesian woman years ago, and she had grown up in both countries.  Steve, despite having been married to an Indonesian for 25 years, having two daughters that spoke the language fluently, and having lived here off and on, knew approximately five words.  My own skills were still in the formative stages, and though I could get around, asking complex questions about complex topics was a bit out of my range.

Karina talked with the proprietor and got the scoop for us.  We could select our cobra from the gnarled pile in the cart and after drinking the blood, could enjoy sate kobra for an additional fee.  Altogether, it would run us about $10 a head.

Karina was the first to go.  She selected a snake, though by what criteria, we don't know, since the beasts were black and the lighting here at 10pm was slightly more than a full-moon's worth.  The man reached in and pulled out the snake, placed a large wooden clamp on its head, and then laid it out on a wooden block.  He motioned for her to pick up a large cleaver and do the honors.

After a little hemming and hawing, and taking careful aim so as not to liberate one of the owner's hands, Karina lopped off the snake's head.

The man quickly grabbed the open neck and tail, and moved over the counter, where a glass of red liquid had been prepared.  He held the carcass tail up and milked the blood into the glass.  He then took a sharp knife and split the snake up the belly, carefully removed the spleen, and squeezed it into the glass, as well.

As to what was in the glass is anybody's guess.  It contained some amount of alcohol.  That much is certain.  It was ladled out of a large jar sitting on the counter, that had various herbs and flower blossoms floating in it. This was one of those occasions when it's best not to ask, as that can ruin an otherwise interesting experience.

I've found, in my travels, that when someone offers you something strange and exotic as a local specialty, 1) you must accept at the risk of thoroughly insulting your host, and 2) don't ask what's in it until you have finished.  Often the delicacy is very tasty and worth seconds or thirds, but it you know which part of what animal you are eating (or insect, for that matter), you won't enjoy the experience.  In the case of decapitated monkey brains, it's hard not to notice the animal staring accusingly at you while you eat, and on those occasions, you just have to brass it out.

So anyway, after all of us had a glass in front of us, we raised them in nervous celebration, as the man skinned the snakes in the background.  Without exception, we all took nervously small sips of the concoction, but were soon relieved to find that the flavor was not bad at all.  It didn't have the taste of mammal blood, and the alcohol content tended to overpower any other flavors, though anise seed was fairly obvious.

As we drank, three plates of sate kobra appeared in front of us.  The meat had been cut into bit-sized morsels, grilled, then smothered in a rather spicy peanut sauce.  Again, moving with trepidation, we each sampled the meat, sure that the flavor was going to be a bit out of the unusual.  Having eaten my share of rattlesnake and alligator, I was sure that it would be rather tough and chewy, but I was pleasantly surprised.

In fact, the texture and flavor was not unlike smoked oysters.  It was rather tender and had a distinct flavor that wasn't like any other snake I had eaten.  None of the three of us had any objection to either the meat or the drink, and we gobbled the whole thing down with a good rinsing of blood at the finish.

Darah kobra, or cobra blood, is not really considered a libation.  It is called jamu, which refers to a category of traditional medicine that involve a wide variety of mixtures, usually liquid.  Cobra blood is said to warm the body's core, improve immunity and, most importantly, contribute to male virility and potency.  I can't really speak to the latter, as I spent the next three days in the mountains with Steve, but we'll take it as axiomatic for now.

If you should find yourself banging around southeast Asia, looking for a unique and memorable experience, I would recommend cobra blood and satay.  A word of caution: though I could find nothing definitive on the internet, even in Wikipedia, concerning cobra blood, there are anecdotal tales of folks having reactions to it.  Whether it's the blood or some other ingredient, i don't know, only that some folks don't tolerate it and get rather ill, though I gather it's like a case of Monctezuma's Revenge.

I can almost hear Clint Eastwood sneering out, "Are ya feeling lucky, punk?"

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