Photos: Brandon McGhee
Slithery, serpentine, sumptuous: one entry in Shanghai's snake scene.
Ever seen a snake and thought "THAT looks delicious"? You’re not the only one. Eating snake has a long history in China, though is probably best known as a soup originating from Guangdong where its status as a delicacy for the wealthy goes back before the birth of Christ
. Nowadays it’s still something of a luxury and still associated with Cantonese cuisine too, mostly as soup or hot pot.
In Shanghai they do snake a little differently, however: swishing it through hot oil and then serving the fried snake dry. Fatty's Snake Shop
(literally 大块头美食阁, named after the extra large owner) does it this way and, I’d heard, to good effect. Specifically that it was as good as the finest fried chicken. That’s something I had to try.
The Shanghainese owner has been selling snake in the city for 20 years, mostly from his old stand on Haining Lu. (Chef Sam Norris of Xime
called it "one of the most shabby, oil stained street restaurants in the whole of Shanghai
" back in 2016.)
This is where these guys developed their reputation, and where I first sought them out — only to find a whole lot of construction. A call took me to the new location deeper into Zhabei, a proper restaurant on Zhiyuan Lu. Construction and a nudge from the local powers-that-be meant that they couldn’t stay in the original location.
On a recent Friday it was packed with groups young and old, some having a merry old baijiu-fueled time. They sell just two types of snake, water snake (dashui she) for 350rmb a plate, and king snake (dawang she) for a minimum 600rmb (the price depends on snake size; there are three tiers). They both come battered, deep-fried and generously seasoned with chili and pepper alongside chives and peanuts. They do soup here too, but that’s not what’s on everyone’s table.
The high prices are apparently a simple case of supply and demand – there aren’t that many snakes being farmed in Shanghai. Easy to believe. After some reticence, the owner told us the snakes aren’t from Shanghai but aren’t "far away".
Water snake and king snake, I ate both. The first thing you’ll notice on both is the seasoning. It’s pungent, powerful and indeed as good as almost any fried chicken blend. When it comes to the river snake, the second thing you’ll notice, quickly, is that it’s not easy to eat. There isn’t much meat on these bones, and it takes practice. After a few pieces it becomes clear that there’s a technique to it. A strip of meat runs down the spine, and if you can get a good hold on it, it peels off into a satisfying morsel.
Get the hang of it and it’s extremely tasty with a unique, pleasantly chewy texture. A great beer snack, snakes. But it takes time, and can feel frustratingly unsatisfying given the amount you’re paying, which is indeed a high barrier to entry.
The king snake has more meat and potential for bigger bites, but the difference is perhaps not as large as one may think given the difference in pricing. Still, if someone put a snake to my head, I’d order the king snake again first.
In all it’s compelling and maybe even addictive. It’s easy to complain about the mechanics of eating it, yet I want to go back and eat more. Maybe lump it in with other tricky-yet-tasty animals like crayfish
and hairy crab. The challenge can also be offset slightly by ordering their frog or chicken wings, with the same seasoning and batter but way meatier and easier to eat. The frog in particular is delicious.
If you’ve come out here and have decided to drop a few hundos on deep-fried river dwellers, get some king snake, maybe some frog, and perhaps some other dishes to round out all the saltiness.
The other parts of the snake? The skin is served as a cold dish, with a chewy texture not dissimilar from soft cartilage. The snake handlers get rid of all the organs except the gall bladder, which they can sell on to processors for its place in traditional Chinese medicine as a cure for a few different maladies (including coughs, skin infections and more).
When asked whether snake was indeed a primarily Cantonese treat, as many assume, the management was confused. They maintain that snake is as much a Shanghainese delicacy as a Cantonese one, the difference being only the method in which its cooked.
As for where else to get snake in Shanghai, we asked the manager for some extra recommendations on that too. We expected something specific. Maybe an assertion that this was the best. The answer? There are too many snake restaurants to name in Shanghai. (Dianping lists 651
.)There are a lot of great ones, too. Including another one just down the street. Snakes are not as rare in Shanghai as you might believe. Old-timers will remember when the entrance to Dada
was shared with a snake restaurant. A few will even remember the night those snakes made a run for the dancefloor
The question is, what keeps these places busy? I have a feeling it’s more than the food.
There’s the long-held belief that snake can boost your virility and libido. This goes back decades and perhaps much longer. Taipei even had its own snake-centric red-light district nicknamed "Snake Alley". As the Taipei Times reported
upon the closure of the streets last standing snake joint, "Six decades ago, Huaxi Street... was a red-light district that featured brothels, street performers and snake-meat restaurants."
Alas, me and my dining companions can’t say we felt any noticeable... benefits.
At any rate, the atmosphere has a feeling of revelry that you only get when people are splashing out on something that they don’t eat very often, and it’s contagious. To me, these snakes might be expensive and a hassle to eat, but it’s a delicious, satisfying hassle. And I’ll be back for it.
Fatty's Snake Shop
, 417 Zhiyun Lu, near Qingyun Lu. Click here
for more details.