After Hours: Sea snake on menu at Okinawa restaurant
February 14, 2013
It might sound cliched, but sea snake tastes a bit like chicken.
The fish-faced reptile called irabu by Okinawans moved from the shallow reefs to the dinner table hundreds of years ago when it became the royal cuisine of Ryukyu kings, despite being hailed as 16 times more venomous than the cobra.
Eating the deadly snake supposedly cures a myriad of ailments and increases fertility, but is clearly only for the most adventurous.
Small bowls of irabu soup can be found in tourist locales in Okinawa, like the fresh market in Naha, but for the “real thing,” or traditional fare, one must go to Yagibaru, near Kadena Air Base, and a hidden gem of a restaurant called Kana.
During a recent trip to Okinawa, I was lucky enough to get a coveted reservation.
I heard about Kana while scouring the Internet for “the real Okinawa” — something traditional, something outside the norm. It was listed in just about every restaurant review website and magazine as a must-visit fine-dining establishment. I was sold. The thought of eating something deadly with mythical powers appealed to me.
Finding the restaurant was an adventure, too, a bit like a scavenger hunt as I looked for two Japanese characters that stood for the name. I found it up a side street opposite some vending machines. There were no parking spaces, no signs of a restaurant at all. I looked in the window; I had come to the right place.
I was an hour early, but I didn’t mind waiting for the infamous snake that was more feared than Kyushu’s mamushi and Okinawa’s land-going habu.
The proprietors, an elderly couple, were warm and welcoming. Others arrived early as well. We sipped jasmine tea while we waited.
At around 7 p.m., a waitress brought me a tray with several sides, including seaweed, salad, rice and my main course of steaming broth with irabu, pig’s feet and seaweed knots. I dove in.
The irabu, eaten with its skin still on, was quite nice, like a dark chicken spliced with the chewiness and texture of octopus. It was a bit stringy and gamey in flavor but was delicious overall, although eating it with the skin on was a bit daunting, a constant reminder of what lay before you.
The pig’s feet were a bit fatty, but melted in your mouth. The broth was slightly gamey, a murky by-product of the venomous underwater serpent, but also tasted good.
It was a lot of food, but the old woman kept peeking out from the kitchen to check on everyone, ensuring all plates were cleaned.
She then broke out two overflowing boxes of the smoked irabu for us to see. There had to be dozens upon dozens of large snakes inside. They were dark in color, rigid, a bit oily to the touch.
She told us that the females are easier to catch as they come ashore to lay their eggs. A closer examination of the headless snakes showed that many were smoked with the large eggs still inside.
After they are smoked, they sell for just over 22,000 yen ($240) per kilogram. That is why they were the food of royalty; they are as expensive as they are feared.
Then she and her husband cut them into pieces and cook them in a pressure cooker for several hours. She said it takes a whole day without the pressure cooker.
The old woman told us that the snakes are almost impossible for someone to cook who does not know how. She implied that it could also be dangerous, as they are smoked with their venom still inside.
As she spoke, I could feel my heart rate increasing. I began to feel really warm. I knew these were effects from the snake.
They brought out my dessert, a guava pudding made from fruit grown in the yard. It was delightful, one of the best things I have ever tasted.
They told me they had been located in Naha for just over 20 years but moved to the current location 11 years ago to escape the throngs that came from near and far for the snake, including Japanese celebrities. The old woman laughed and said that her next escape might be to heaven.
I wished her health. She said that the snake ensures it.
She said she had been skeptical of its health benefits many years ago, but testimonials from customers assured her otherwise. One fellow diner piped up to say he had traveled from the northern tip of Japan to eat the snake every year.
As I drove north to explore more of Okinawa, I felt strange. The feeling would continue throughout the night, leading to one weird, warm bout of heart-racing slumber.
The next morning, I felt amazing.
Okinawans I spoke with on the street told me I was crazy for eating the snake. I guess it’s viewed as a bit risky even to the locals.
I can only hope the restaurant’s proprietors find a way to keep Kana going, although I fear that era is coming to an end with the weariness of its owners.
Even after I returned to my home in Sasebo, the positive effects stayed with me. It is a journey I hope I get the chance to make again.
I had eaten the irabu like a Ryukyu king and came out the other side feeling like one myself.