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Around the World in 80 Days

Day 44: 7 November

Michael Palin - Around the World in 80 DaysBut greater gastronomic adventure lies in store in the evening. We drive down endless dimly-lit streets, some dark because of low voltage, others because of power cuts, all intriguing and full of atmosphere, to a restaurant at which snake is the speciality. There are one or two in the window, twined around a dusty branch in a cursory attempt to re-create a natural habitat. Inside there's a bustle of waiters and a family atmosphere at the tables. The Chinese, who take their food very seriously, like to select a snake of their choice before it's killed, and accordingly a number are brought to your table, or rather, thank God, to the floor beside your table. They are in circular baskets from which they are extracted and deftly displayed. Not wanting to see them twist and writhe in the air any longer than necessary, and having no clue as to what to look for in a snake, I leave Basil to choose. He selects a nice bit of cobra. The waiter makes a small incision in the chosen one, and deftly removes its gall bladder which is laid neatly upon a white saucer and which will later form the basis of a highly-prized liqueur, available here but not in Hong Kong, from whence special tours are laid on to taste it. I'm told it's good for rheumatism and speeds up blood cell regeneration. Once the gall bladder is removed, the head is cut off and, its forked tongue flicking desperately at thin air, laid beside the saucer on which the gall bladder nestles. The waiter then slits the snake's skin from top to bottom, and with rather too much pulling and tugging for my liking peels it away from the body. Spots of blood splatter onto the floor, but the whole operation is over in less than a minute and is watched, admiringly rather than sensationally, by the other diners. A moment or two to recover before the cooked snake appears (in many forms) at table. It tastes like rich chicken, and is served as part of a long, and I have to say, delicious meal of which I can do little more than relate the menu:

Snake bladder liqueur

Cat and snake soup

Shredded snake with broccoli

Snake balls (tender morsels of deep fried snake)

Rice birds (these are the smallest birds I've ever eaten, and they come whole, but plucked. None of our party ate the head, which to the Chinese is the supreme delicacy)

Ginseng, chicken and mushroom soup (served from a silver steamer with coiled-snake handles)

Fresh fox (fruit-eating foxes, which live only on bananas and taste of venison)


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  • Series: Around the World in 80 Days
  • Day: 44
  • Date: 7 November
  • Country/sea: China
  • Place: Guangzhou
  • Book page no: 147

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