Thursday, August 5, 2010
Pengalaman Sangat Indonesia – Not for the faint of heart
Remember a month or so ago, when I was writing about my adventures in the mud at Pulau Sempu, and I mentioned that I'd missed out on drinking cobra blood in Jogja? Well... the other night, I made up for it.
After hearing about the two people who did it in Jogja (and seeing them alive and well the next day), Leslie and Chris decided they wanted to try it too, so Pak Gatut took them to his friend who runs a cobra restaurant – of course Pak Gatut has a friend with a cobra restaurant, don't you? - and they too came back still kicking and with a great story to tell. So it was in the back of my mind for a while. Then on Tuesday, Wyatt and I decided to give it a try. The plan was to make it a class trip, and Judith seemed game, but in the end kickboxing class won out and it ended up being just the two of us and Gatut. Lame.
After Wyatt's gamelan class I headed home to tell my host family I wouldn't be home for dinner, I was going out for snake blood instead. They thought I was a little nuts, but then that's about usual by now. We all met out at Gatut's house, then on to Depot Cobra Rejeki. It's a warung on a back street in a wealthy neighborhood, slightly dingy, and entirely deserted except for the four of us (myself, Wyatt, Gatut, and Pak Imam, the driver for the program). We went to the back and watched as the proprietress one by one fished three cobras out of a wooden box, held them out for us to see, then with a mininimum of fuss cut off their heads with a cleaver, drained the blood into a shot glass, took off the skin and removed the stomach, the contents of which ended up in a smaller shot glass with a touch of wine. A cobra is like a chicken, apparently, in that the head keeps snapping at you for a good ten minutes after it's cut off from the body, and the snake keeps moving roughly until the organs are out, though it's already thoroughly dead. The little garbage can that the heads were dropped into was actually rocking on the floor as she was cleaning the meat in the sink. Imagine, you can still be bitten and killed by a severed cobra head. Hati-hati...
I'd struggled a bit with the idea of going out to have an animal killed so I could have the thrill of eating it. But when you get down to it, what's the difference between that and ordering roast chicken at a restaurant, or grilling a sausage? In both cases an animal dies so that you can consume it. And here, rather than going to the grocery store for an anonymous package of shrink-wrapped meat from lord knows what factory, I saw the snake and watched it get slaughtered – unlike the usual American eating experience, I was, for the first time, face to face with the death involved in producing my food, and for the first time it was impossible not to recognize the sacrifice involved. Not that I'm ready to go watch a cow get slaughtered for my hamburger, but it was an experience I'm glad I had. And because we ate the meat and some organs for dinner, very little was wasted, again unlike the usual American eating experience. I don't know much about cobra populations in East Java or whether the hunting practices are sustainable, so maybe it was entirely ecologically irresponsible of me, but again, given what I know about livestock operations in the States, I think the comparison still holds. Anyway, that's my two cents on the matter.
Back out to the front, we sat at a table and a tray was brought to us with three big shot glasses of blood and three little ones with bile and wine. My snake was on the small side – I got a girl cobra – so they had to add a little of the blood from Wyatt's snake into my glass. On the table were cups of water and bowls of mints – apparently it's not uncommon for people to puke after drinking it. One, two, three, cheers! The bile shot went down first. A little bitter, tasted mostly like wine. Next the blood. Cheers again. It tasted like, well, blood. A little salty, a little thicker than you might want, but swallow fast and it's not too terrible. Nobody puked. (I found out later that three guys who'd tried it earlier had gagged, so I was a little proud of myself.) A few minutes, a mint, and some water later the meat came out, stir fried with ginger and garlic. It looked like snake. A little chewy, but tasted mostly of sweet Indonesian soy sauce. Afterwards we chatted and smoked kretek (the ubiquitous Indonesian clove cigarettes), which seemed entirely appropriate after drinking the blood of a deadly reptile. It came to $7 each, including rice. They said we wouldn't be able to sleep well that night and indeed I didn't. I can't say I felt any dramatic effects the next day – no extraordinary glow of health or virility – but then I also didn't feel any worse for my sleepless night, so maybe there's something to it. In any case, I can now say that I've eaten cobra. Worth my $7.
Postscript: When I got home, my family, though still slightly skeptical of my sanity, suddenly thought I was awfully adventurous, and started reeling off lists of slightly strange native Indonesian foods I'd yet to try – horse satay, snails, various soups and stews. We had goat kebabs last night. Honestly, cobra's tastier.