Many Taiwanese eat traditional herbal or tonic food during the winter because they believe it can strengthen their bodies, and many travel books or tourism Web sites direct tourists interested in this custom to Taipei’s Huaxi Street (華西街) night market to try a special tonic food: snake.
Until a few years ago, the public slaughter and skinning of snakes was once a famous — or infamous — attraction at the night market, drawing many curious tourists to see how live snakes were killed and made into dishes or wine.
The performances were banned as public awareness of animal welfare and environmental protection increased, and to comply with Article 13 of the Animal Protection Act (動物保護法), which states that “animals are not allowed to be slaughtered at public places or in places accessible by the public.”
“We don’t perform those shows anymore … at least there weren’t any last year,” the owner of a snake cuisine restaurant surnamed Hung (洪) said.
However, bowls of hot soup with pieces of cooked snake meat and herbal ingredients; pan-fried or baked snake meat; snake oil pills; wine glasses filled with red, clear and yellow liquids said to be made of snake blood; snake penis wine and snake gall are still being served at snake cuisine restaurants.
“We have all kinds of visitors, not only foreign tourists, but also Taiwanese … people with skin ailments also like to come,” Hung said. “Snake meat soup is the most popular dish because it cools an overheated body, as well as revitalizes and nourishes the skin.”
“Traditional Chinese medicine prescribes eating snake meat soup to alleviate fever and for detox,” Taipei Chinese Medical Association chairperson Chen Chih-fang (陳志芳) said. “In the past, when a person had a skin irritation that did not heal, they were told to take the soup to cool the heat in their blood to improve their condition.”
“It was also believed that snake gall was effective for removing ‘heat’ from the liver — which is manifested through symptoms such as a dry mouth and tongue, constipation, tinnitus or dark--yellow urine — and improving eyesight, ” he added.
However, snake meat or gall should not be consumed raw and should only be taken under the guidance of a Chinese medicine practitioner because each person has specific needs and physical conditions, and raw meat or internal organs may carry parasites, Chen said.
When asked when a doctor would prescribe snake as medicine, he said that most doctors would not prescribe snake meat or body parts because they are considered to be a tonic food.
He added that people with “cold” body temperatures, such as those who often look pale, have cold hands and feet, or have gastrointestinal problems, should not eat snake.
Chen Lei-ru (陳蕾如), a pediatrician at National Taiwan University Hospital’s Hsinchu branch, said the functions and effects of eating snake are rarely discussed in Western medicine, which focuses mostly on the treatment of poisonous snake bites.
“However, eating snake body parts raw should be avoided because snakes may carry salmonella or other parasites and there have been reported cases of illnesses caused by consuming raw snake parts in other countries,” she said.
The source of the snakes is another factor that could affect food safety, as wild snakes could ingest pesticide and captive-bred snakes could have been fed artificial additives, she said.
Chen Chih-fang said he has heard that most of the snakes for consumption are now raised in farms, but Hung said that many of those seen in restaurants are wild snakes.
Responding to questions about the source of the snakes and food safety regulations, the Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection and Quarantine said that because snakes are not listed as an economic livestock, they are not regulated by the bureau, but the Forestry Bureau regulates the capture of all protected species.
“The source of the snakes is unknown … the owners usually say they were purchased from a farm,” an unnamed official at the Taipei City Government’s agency for animal protection said.
The official added that restaurant owners could be fined if the snakes they sold were protected species, as stipulated by the Wildlife Conservation Act (野生動物保育法).
The majority of the snakes seen at restaurants are not in violation of the act because they are unprotected species, such as the big-eye rat snake or the dhaman rat snake, the official said, adding that recent inspections have not uncovered any public killings.