Cobra’s Beating Heart

Cobra as Fresh as It Gets

I’ve eaten and drunk many a strange thing around the world. And I’ll continue to do so, for your delectation as well as mine. So I was at the 3T restaurant, on the rooftop above Temple Club in Saigon, recently, entertaining a friend from the States. And I want to tell you that I had the freshest shrimp I’ve ever eaten. Oh, so sweet and succulent were they! Truly, I’ve never tasted shrimp so divine.

There I was, at the north-east corner table (best in the house), under a starry sky. Miss Constance (that’s the mem saab, you know) was at my left hand, and my old boxing nemesis-now-best-buddy Bruce Harmon upon my right. We ordered a slew of meats and fish to cook ourselves at the grill installed in the center of our table. And that included shrimp. Giant prawns, really. And truly, they were monstrously big. Pink, fat, shimmering in their shells, each skewered with a bamboo stick and piled on a big plate ready for the red hot grill. I anticipated the sizzling sound and the smoky aroma.

And then one of them leaped out of the plate and onto Lady C’s lap! And then another! And as I looked, I could see that that the entire pile of shrimp, with wooden stakes driven through their hearts, was undulatingly alive! So, what to do? We threw them on the grill and cooked them. Damn, they were good! It was one of those, “Only in Saigon” moments. With profuse apologies to the RSPCA and PETA, they were the best shrimp I’ve ever eaten.

And it made me recall the night in Saigon’s Houng Roung Restaurant, when yet another fresh dish was set before me. It was a living seven-foot long Indian king cobra. The restaurant’s snake handler held it up by the tail and, writhing before me reminded me of a cowboy playing with a lariat. But this lariat was snapping his deadly jaws mere inches before my too vulnerable face.

‘Bravo!’ (or something to that effect) the restaurant patrons shouted, as the ‘cowboy’ displayed his skill in controlling this ‘lariat of death’. My Vietnamese assistant, Miss Tran, leaned forward and whispered in my ear, ‘Don’t worry. The handler is very good. He’s only been bitten twice.’

Luckily, two of the handler’s assistants appeared and the three of them grappled with the thrashing cobra, stretching him out lengthwise across my table. Another assistant slit his throat and drained his blood into a goblet. Now the beast lay still, and the handler cut out its still beating heart and set it in a small ivory serving vessel. He mixed rice wine into the chalice of blood and set the sanguine mess before me with all due aplomb. “I guess I’m supposed to eat this, eh?” I asked Miss Tran.

“And drink the blood,” she said. “It’s an honor, you know. And it will make you, how shall I say, ‘strong.’” The term “strong” was Miss Tran’s delicate way of saying it would supercharge my libido.

“There seem to be many dishes here that make men strong,” I observed.

“Yes. We have a high birth rate.”

“Do ladies ever eat such things?” I asked, still regarding the thumbnail sized heart beating in its little dish.

“No,” she said. And for the first and only time, I saw her blush.

Lifting the little ivory saucer to my lips I tilted my head back and the heart slid beating into my mouth. Almost of its own accord it snaked down my throat. I hardly had to swallow. Raising the goblet I toasted the skilful handler who has only been bitten twice and quaffed a good portion of the warm blood and sweet wine. Miss Tran looked on approvingly. I dabbed my lips with the starched white napkin and it came away with the red imprint of my lips, like a blotter a woman has used after applying her lipstick.

As I performed this ceremony a cook was adroitly de-boning the cobra. The bones, delicate as a small fish’s, he broke into pieces, dredged them in rice flour and salt, then deep fried them to a savory, crispy snack. The he prepared the flesh as three separate dishes that I chose from a list of eight available. I chose curried, braised with wine, and wrapped in tangy leaves then grilled. Miss Tran gamely tasted the flesh of the serpent, but deemed it unladylike to enjoy it. Perhaps she feared it would make her, shall we say, strong. She contented herself with rice and vegetables and a small fish.

I, on the other hand, consumed all I could of Eve’s betrayer. I continued to sip the vinous blood and dab my lips with the napkin till it was mottled with crimson. What, you may ask, did the serpent, the symbol of evil and deceit, taste like? Was he bitter? No. Tough to chew? Hardly. I wish I could say that he tasted of sin. Or at least had an after taste of bad deeds. Or simply impure thoughts. But the truth is, he tasted like chicken. I much preferred the jumping prawns.

Clint Eastwood

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