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As I sat there looking at the shot glass full of cobra blood on the table before me, I couldn’t help but think about the scene in Danny Boyle’s 2000 masterpiece “The Beach,” in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Richard” is asked on the streets of Bangkok if he wants to drink snake blood.

“Afraid of something new?” the Thai salesman asks him when he balks.

Richard continues to protest and only gives in when the salesman implies that American tourists don’t have open minds.

“Gentlemen, that was excellent,” a sweaty and shaken Richard says, smiling, after he is barely able to stomach it, before fleeing the sketchy back-alley establishment adorned with snake cages.

That film has taken on a whole new meaning for me since I found myself in similar circumstances on a recent trip to Taipei, the capital of the Republic of China: Twice.

As I was about to depart Japan at the beginning of April for some much-needed rest and relaxation, a buddy of mine told me to look for “cobra sake” if I made it out to any of Taipei’s bars. The thought was enticing. This was the king of snakes.

I had grown accustomed to the rather tame practice of drinking poisonous snake alcohol, like habu and mamushi sake in Kyushu, and eating poisonous snakes like irabu in Okinawa. Those snakes were merely soaked in a bottle of alcohol, which was then drunk, or cooked in a soup in a very traditional style.

Poisonous snakes should only be consumed when in the presence of professionals; however, when done correctly, they do provide a boost of energy and vitality.

I fully believe there are health benefits based on how it made me feel in the days after.

The practice of consuming poisonous snake products is common all over Asia, from Thailand to Taiwan to Vietnam. Believers claim a host of benefits, from an increase in sexual functioning and virility to staving off heart attack and stroke.

I sought out the cobra sake, thinking I was liable to find a large jar and the king of snakes floating in liquor inside.

A Taiwanese bartender told me of a place the locals call “Snake Alley,” the Taipei Huaxi Tourist Night Market — the only place in Taipei where cobra sake could be found.

“Cool,” she beamed when I told her of my plans to try it before a night out on the town. “I’ve never done that.”

The Taipei Huaxi Tourist Night Market is located on Huaxi Street near Longshan Temple. It is kind of hard to find, though, if you are actually looking for it.

After getting off the train, I spent several hours navigating the Guangzhou, Wuzhou and Xichang night markets, passing food carts, textiles and souvenir vendors. But no Huaxi Street. No night market.

I took a break for some shopping and dinner. As I bumbled around the alleys of Taipei, I stumbled into a small alley and the smallest, most humble night market I had seen in the city.

A tall, red, Chinese-style gate stood before me.

As I walked down Huaxi Street, I passed two places with live snakes in cages out front. I did not go inside, nor did I stop. I had to walk around until I had worked up the courage. Finally, after a couple of minutes I went inside one place called Chen Tei. No one spoke English, only Chinese, and there was no English menu.

“Cobra sake?” I asked several times.

“Oh yes,” said a woman who spoke some English as she entered from the kitchen. She hustled me to a table and sat me down. Next thing I knew, a shot of cobra blood, a shot of cobra wine, a shot of cobra “medicine,” a shot of cobra venom, a shot of alcohol that had male cobra genitalia floating in it until moments before, a shot of cobra bile, two cobra oil pills and a bowl of cobra soup were in front of me.

Everyone paused to look at me.

What do you do in a situation like that?

Cobra blood tasted like watered-down Kool-Aid. It was a bit sweet, but that was largely elusive, as was its taste. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t good, either.

Cobra wine tasted like bad wine. Cobra medicine was extremely bitter and salty. I have no idea what that actually was.

Cobra venom was indescribable, but strong. Cobra genitalia alcohol tasted like habu sake, believe it or not, and cobra bile tasted like a shot of olive oil.

I gobbled down the two cobra oil pills without asking for water and dived into the soup. It tasted like chicken but with a strong, venomous broth. Cobra has a lot of small fish-like bones in it, surprisingly.

Afterward, I hit Taipei’s clubs, feeling great, warm, with an elevated heart rate — just as I had figured I would. I felt even better the next day.

I still didn’t know if I got the right thing, so I went back the next day. I went into the only other place with snake cages.

“Cobra sake?” I asked.

This time, no one spoke English. I was sat down again and more shots of blood, genitalia alcohol and God-knows-what were placed in front of me.

They motioned that they had killed the snake earlier, so I did not have to watch them drain the blood or feel largely responsible for its death. I wanted to run.

“Gentlemen, that was excellent.”

The Taipei Huaxi Tourist Night MarketWhere: Taipei Huaxi Tourist Night Market in Taipei, Republic of China (Taiwan). Located on Huaxi Street near Longshan Temple. Take the subway blue line to Longshan Temple station. Find the temple nearby. Exit the temple’s only gate, take a right, followed by a right into the first night market, and another right onto Huaxi Street. Walk until you see snakes.

Phone: Call Chen Tei in Chinese only: (02)2302-1247.

Cost: About $9 U.S., or $250 New Taiwan, for the array of cobra products.

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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.
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