Despite Taipei being a modern and progressive city at the forefront of modern society, like many other iconic cities, it has its fair share of seedy activities hidden amongst the darker alleys in districts filled with organized crime. Within the city’s oldest district there was once an attraction that brought onlookers from far and wide, though today many see it as an antiquated remnant of yesteryear Taiwan which belongs in the tales of history, eating snake meat.
Welcome to Snake Alley, where you can sample freshly prepared snake meat and quench your thirst with shots of snake blood and venom. In this article, we’ll look at the history of the Snake Alley and show how you can try out some of these unique items for yourself during your time in Taiwan.
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A Brief History of the Snake Alley
Located in the Wanhua District of Old Taipei, the Huaxi Street Night Market has one of the most vivid and varied histories of any district in Taiwan. In fact, it was Taipei’s first district! From there the city continued to develop into the booming capital city which it is today. Sadly the district hasn’t aged as well as the others, as it’s still home to some unwelcomed practices which many would prefer to leave behind.
Organised Crime and Disorganised Brothels
For the last 50 years, the Wanhua District has been the home of Taipei’s seedy underbelly of organised crime. Though gang activity may not be as obvious as it once was, the air of criminality continues to linger in the air for many locals. The district has also been the home of the city’s red-light district for decades! In its heyday, the region boomed with porno stores and thriving brothels. These bordellos also became a keen stopping off point for American servicemen on leave from their air force bases in Taiwan and during the Vietnam War.
In an attempt to clean up the city, prostitution was outlawed in 1991, though it was only a temporary change. In 2009 the Constitutional Court found the law to be unconstitutional and planned to establish “special zones” where sex work would be legalised and small brothels will be allowed to operate. Though it may now be quasi-legal, no special zones have been set-up as no politician wants the backlash of endorsing them! Regardless, law or not, plenty of brothels, or “teahouses”, still exist and prostitutes are common features of many massage parlours and KTVs with practically no repercussions.
Taiwan went from a COVID success story to having its first-ever outbreak, why? Prostitution and a man called the Lion King.
The Snake in “Snake Alley”
Moving on… from within this sordid neighbourhood came one of the city’s most fascinating spectacles, the slaughter and consumption of snake products. The public slaughter and skinning of live snakes once drew many curious tourists visiting Taiwan who wanted to see a live snake being prepared into various dishes and wines that were served in numerous restaurants along the street.
The performances were banned in the 2000s to adhere to Article 13 of the Animal Protection Act, which states that “animals are not allowed to be slaughtered at public places.” Plus the public began growing a little concerned about the welfare of these animals that were brutally murdered in front of a group of prying eyes…how sensitive some people can be, right?…
As a result, today’s alley is a shell of its former glory and has lost its glamour and aesthetic appeal much like the ageing prostitutes that still frequent it. Though the public show no longer exists, the eating of snakes does! In fact, there are still two restaurants that continue to offer this unique cuisine!
Where is it?
Snake Alley, also known as Huaxi Street Night Market is located near Longshan Temple, which is easily the most sacred temple site in the city.
The easiest way to get there is by subway. Take the blue line to Longshan Temple and walk from Exit 1. Keep walking west of the temple and you’ll soon get there. You can also get there by taking bus numbers 1, 38, 49, 231, 245, 264, 310, 568, 656, 658, 701 or 907.
Once you’re at the market, then you have two choices of restaurants; 金代山產藥膳坊 or 亞洲鱉蛇專賣店.
What Are the “Benefits” of Eating Snakes?
It’s not outrageous to say that Chinese medicine can be spotty at best. It’s not exactly the most scientific method of treatment and has a lot of bullshit mythical claims. The best-known belief is that rhino horns are able to bring back withered old men’s own sexually depraved horns. Sadly, snakes also have similarly fabled tales.
Snake meat was said to alleviate fever and could also be used to detox the body. It was also traditionally used to heal skin irritations and even claimed to improve eyesight. Funnily enough, I don’t know of many opticians prescribing cobras though. Yet, by far my favourite claim is that the meat, which is traditionally eaten as a soup, will “cool the heat in the blood“…that sounds like solid science right there…
The alley’s booming snake meat market conveniently went hand in hand with one of the alley’s other flourishing industry, HOOKERS! It was claimed that, like many other animals, drinking snake blood would boost the male libido to prepare for a raucous night of exchanging STDs. It almost became customary for punters to pop in for a quick shot before visiting one of the nearby brothels to give a haggard old lady a quick shot of their own!
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What Should You Try?
As the name of the alley suggests, the star of the show is of course the reptilian serpent which can be served in a number of ways. The most common dish is a hot soup (more like a broth really) with pieces of snake meat and herbs. If that doesn’t take your interest then you could try some classic pan-fried or baked snake meat. If that isn’t enough to whet your appetite then how about a shot of snake blood or snake penis wine? Yummy!
Easily the most iconic item available is the sets that come with a bowl of snake soup and a series of snake-related shots! In total there are 6, all of which are made from a different part of the snake. They consist of snake blood wine (the biggest glass), snake venom, snake penis wine, snake bile, ginseng and a Chinese medicine in that exact order. You’ll also get two snake oil capsules which apparently come with their own benefits.
Now hold up, before you start throwing them down your gullet, there’s actually a very particular routine to drinking them. First, drink half of the snake blood, then you have to add one of the shots to the glass. You then have to drink half of that mixture and repeat the steps until you’re at the end.
Don’t fret vegans, if snake doesn’t take your fancy, there are still plenty of other unconventional animals ready to be served during your trip to Taiwan! How does the sound of turtle blood and its juicy meat sound? The testicles are a real treat from what I hear! Keeping with the genital theme, how about some deer penis wine? Mouthwatering.
Is it Safe?
Some of you might be asking how can you eat snake venom safely? By its very nature, it should have the power to kill! Well, you actually have two levels of protection.
First off, for venom to have an effect, it needs to be injected into the bloodstream, hence the typical snake’s bitey nature! Swallowing venom (in theory) won’t affect you. On the other hand, poisons are generally deadly whenever you swallow them. Isn’t science fun kids!!
Secondly, the proteins that make up the venom are broken down by ethanol in the alcohol and thus should become non-lethal. Meaning that it’s more or less completely safe!
Despite that, it’s not as if there’s no effect whatsoever! Some people (including myself) actually experienced some level of dizziness or even a tiny hint of paralysis, like you’ve taken a couple of sleeping pills. But other than a little buzz that lasts a few minutes, you’re in no danger, theoretically…
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