Before embarking on my first trip to Indonesia, I had exotic preconceptions about the cuisine I would eat. I imagined fearlessly wolfing down plates of fried bugs, monkey brains and entrails on a stick.
Nine years later, I must admit that my dinner is far more likely to come courtesy of Ronald McDonald or Colonel Sanders than anything native to this archipelago. A dollop of sambal on my pizza is about as Indonesian as my diet gets. Thus, when a friend visited from the United Kingdom, I resolved to remedy this with a visit to King Cobra House in North Jakarta.
The restaurant is located on Jalan Raya Mangga Besar Raya. The small frontage is draped with a banner that says the establishment opened in 1965 and lists its delicacies. Snakes, monitor lizards, bats, turtles and monkeys are available, although disappointingly not sold fresh.
The interior of King Cobra is modestly furnished with three small wooden tables and plastic chairs. One wall houses a cabinet of snakeskin bags, wallets, purses and cobra-head belts. On another wall, a display cabinet contains hundreds of vials of animal-derivative medicines with purported benefits ranging from curing diabetes to enlarging breasts. A faded photograph shows a young girl sitting contentedly next to a boa constrictor.
Our group was seated by a gleeful waitress, who brought us the menu and explained the restorative properties of each item. A large assortment of snakes was available, with cow snake on the cheaper end for Rp 50,000 ($5.30) and king cobra for Rp 750,000.
After a customer orders, the snake is freshly butchered, and some of the blood is drained into a cup. The snake’s gizzard is removed and added to the cup. A measure of the local spirit, arak, is poured into the mixture, which is then served warm. We were informed that the consumption of this beverage would greatly enhance our “stamina” and give us glowing complexions.
With some trepidation, we ordered a black cobra, a green snake and a cow snake. Customers could watch their orders being prepared through a large viewing screen into the slaughter room. The experience wouldn’t be complete without it.
The snake room was a tiny space filled with glass-fronted metal boxes. Snakes of all sizes could be seen writhing inside. In most boxes, there were so many of the animals crammed in that they were an indistinguishable mass of slithering bodies. The only exception was the enormous king cobra, which swayed menacingly in solitary confinement.
Ono, a man with a diminutive stature and a fearless nature, was tasked with the snake slaughter, starting with the black cobra. He used a curved metal wrangling stick to fish the livid, snapping reptile from its enclosure. As it hissed and darted at him, he nonchalantly held it up to the window. In one swift motion, he slapped it onto a wooden board and held its head down with the stick. He then brought a large cleaver down on its head, taking several blows to decapitate it.
The disembodied head kept hissing and gnashing its jaws for several minutes, refusing to accept its fate. One member of our group, an intrepid photographer, was warned from getting too close to the head, which could still inflict a poisonous bite.
The snake’s body was hanged on the wall while Ono made a small incision and effortlessly tugged its skin free from its body. He tossed the still-thrashing carcass into a plastic bin; this would later be used to make sate and soup. The process was then repeated with the beautiful green snake and the slightly underwhelming cow snake.
Having witnessed the gruesome scene, one of my friends was looking rather pale so we took a seat and waited for our order. We were each handed a beaker in which the blood and arak had already been mixed. The snakes’ gizzards, which looked like small purple grapes, were brought out separately. A slit was made in them and the liquid from the organ was dripped into each glass.
The concoction was a deep maroon color with a thick consistency. Snake blood is definitely not a drink to be sipped and savored, so summoning the last of our bravado, we made a toast and drained our glasses in one.
I had not been expecting to enjoy the taste, but I was still taken aback by how truly awful it was. The bitter arak stung my nose and throat and made my eyes water. The sickly warm blood was so thick I could feel it oozing down into my stomach. The smell was gut-wrenching. One of my friends gagged and retched, gulping down glass after glass of water. Snake blood was, without any doubt, the worst thing I had ever tasted.
After a few minutes, the nausea passed and the color returned to our cheeks, but even so, it took several beers to cleanse my palate of the taste.
While having a photo with Ono, I noticed a nasty, deep scar on his forearm. In a matter of fact way, he said it was from a rattle snake bite. He then rolled up his sleeve to reveal a second scar, from a king cobra bite. He said the bite had made him feel like his entire body was on fire and he’d been hospitalized for a month.
While the wares of King Cobra House may not have been to my taste, it’s impossible not to respect the employees who put their lives on the line. That certainly cannot be claimed about staff of Burger King.
Unfortunately, several days after my visit, my skin is as leathery as before and I haven’t received the promised stamina boost. Nevertheless, I would recommend a visit to this establishment because it certainly offered a unique and memorable experience, albeit one I am not in a great hurry to repeat.
My guest evidently felt the same way; upon returning to the United Kingdom, he mentioned his snake blood drink on his Facebook status. Another friend asked whether it tasted like chicken.
“No,” he responded, “it tastes like hell in a glass!”
I doubt King Cobra House will elect to use his testimony in their promotional literature.