Cobra gall bladder and marrow cocktail cures all sorts of ailments, but basically it enhances the metabolism. It cures cancer, diabetes, asthma and many more diseases,” said Adreana Susanti, owner of the Kobra Imperial Kitchen in Yogyakarta.
In fact, a cobra gall bladder and marrow cocktail bar is this restaurant’s special attraction, alongside regular dishes found in most Chinese restaurants.
On the menu, cobra meat is offered as a burger, in Tom Yam soup, satay or sweet-and-sour sauce, in addition to 11 other cobra dishes on offer.
“This morning, a lady came to buy cobra gall bladder,” said Sumi, the waitress who mixes the gall bladder and marrow cocktails. “She comes every day to buy gall bladder for her husband who suffers from leukemia. He takes it twice a day. He has been a regular customer for three months now.
“Every week we serve around 30 gall bladder cocktails. We also send frozen bladders in ice boxes to customers all over the country, sometimes to Jakarta, Semarang, Kudus, Magelang, Solo and also to Banjarmasin in Kalimantan. Usually these customers order either 15 or 30 frozen bladders and marrow each time.?
“We sell up to 100 gall bladders every month from our frozen stock, depending on the orders.”
The restaurant serves the gall bladder and marrow cocktails in tall shot glasses, layered first with honey, then with a special rice spirit infused with deer embryo and herbs, then medicinal wine, also infused with another deer embryo and more herbs. Floating on the top is the cobra gall bladder, which is as big as the tip of a little finger, and a pinch of the marrow.
“Just give it a little stir but take care not to break the gall bladder or it will taste bitter, and down it in one gulp,” Sumi said. The cocktail tastes of honey and feels warm passing down the throat.
Sumi lifted the blackened deer embryo out of the jar of rice spirit infusion. “This has been here for decades,” she said.
The cobra satay tastes like rather chewy beef and the cobra meat in the rica-rica , a stir fry with shallots, garlic, candlenuts and chili, is tender with a kick.
The Kobra Imperial Kitchen obtains its meat from Seger, the most reputable cobra butcher in Yogyakarta.
“I have been a cobra butcher since 1983,” Seger said. “I used to hunt snakes and mongooses to stuff and sell as decorations. One day when I was hunting, I met a group of villagers who had caught a banded craig. A man who wanted to commit suicide asked them to let the snake bite him. Miraculously, the man survived the snake bite.
“He and I got talking and we decided to get into business together. That’s how I became a cobra butcher. My partner supplied the funds and I used my network of snake catchers. In the early years I would kill up to 1,000 cobras a day.”
Without any training, Seger became a cobra butcher. “I’ve often been spat at by cobras. If the venom gets into your eyes, it stings like chili. If that happens, don’t rub them, under any circumstance. You should flush them out under running water. I’ve also been bitten many times. If you get bitten, you should try and press out the venom, but don’t suck it, because if there are any open wounds in your mouth, the venom will enter your blood stream even quicker,” he said, sticking out his right index finger, scarred by a cobra’s bite.
It’s obvious Seger’s business is a success judging by his house in Imogori, southeast of the city: It’s one of the biggest in the village, with a large front yard and a verandah with grapevines growing over an awning. In front and to one side of the house are many small, traditional bird cages — traditionally a sign of wealth in Indonesia — but there are also some larger aviaries where he is trying to breed valuable song birds.
“The number of cobras has declined drastically in the past few years, so I am trying to diversify and begin a songbird breeding business,” he explained. “Besides, there is now a snake buyer from Hong Kong who pays more than I do, so cobra hunters prefer to sell their catch to him.
“Nowadays, we only kill around 100 cobras every month. Cobras are difficult to find now. As more and more rice fields are being used for real estate, there is nowhere for the cobras to live and no one is breeding them. The dried skin of a fat cobra, 1 meter long, nowadays fetches Rp 13,000 ($1.12). We send the dried skins to an agent in Boyolali in Central Java and to one in Surabaya. The meat, the gall bladders and the bone marrow, we sell to the Kobra restaurant in Yogya.”
The snakes are butchered at the back of a house owned by Seger’s son, Nur, about 500 meters from where Seger lives. Nur is getting ready to butcher around 80 snakes for the month’s supply. The snakes are kept in used flour sacks and the area reeks the putrid smell of something dead.
“Some of the snakes die before we get to kill them,” said Nur’s brother, Wisnu, as Nur prepared a stool in front of a chopping block. Wisnu doesn’t like handling live snakes. “I just help once they are dead. I don’t like being spat at.”
Nur opened a sack and pulled out a writhing and spitting cobra, its hood opened in aggression. “This is too small, we can’t kill it yet,” he said as he put the snake back into the sack. Another cobra was spared the chop because it was shedding its skin. “Cobras are more aggressive when they are changing skin.” The third snake was just right. Nur played with it a while before deftly chopping off its head on the wooden block.
The headless snake continued to wriggle as if it were still alive. “To butcher the cobra we chop off its head and make a small incision by its throat to get a hold of the skin. Then you pull the skin back toward the tail,” he explained, as he made a small cut by the throat of the headless snake and peeled the skin back a little. Wisnu then stripped the skin right off the snake’s body. As the skinless snake kept wriggling, he slit open the snake’s gut and pulled out the gall bladder.
The snake was definitely dead at that point, with no sign of movement.
Wisnu gave the backbone a tug to crack it. Then, using a long hooked needle, he pierced the marrow and pulled it out in several long pieces, placing them on a different tray.
Nur continued chopping snakes’ heads off for about an hour, water flowing out of a green plastic hose to wash away the blood. The skinned snake carcasses were put onto trays to go into a freezer, awaiting collection by the Kobra restaurant. The skins were stretched on long pieces of slit bamboo and put in the sun to dry.
The whole job — from skinning the snakes to extracting the gall bladders and bone marrow — took around three hours. In the afternoon, someone from the Kobra restaurant came to collect the month’s supply.
Seger and his sons will do it all again when the hunters come round with the next batch.
Photo: Nur, left, and Wisnu skinning and washing dead cobras. (Godeliva D. Sari, JG)