This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.
The snakes were hissing mad. Ibu Rica set up the waist-high cage of writhing, pissed-off cobras about 30 minutes ago, and the motorbike cacophony of Jalan Mangga Besar, a busy road in northwestern Jakarta, was already annoying the creatures.
Not that it mattered much to Rica. She held one of the snakes in her fist, holding its wriggling body tight as she pinched its head between wooden tongs. The snake hissed as she squeezed the tongs together and pulled, yanking the cobra’s head off its body in one clean motion.
“My husband sells durian a few tents down the road,” she casually told me, while the headless snake’s body twisted angrily. “He doesn’t dare help me with these cobras.”
It was my third time visiting Rica’s bright yellow cobra tent. She sets up her tent around 5:30 PM everyday near the SUMI Hotel in Mangga Besar, offering customers sticks of peanut sauce-covered cobra sate, or satay, and shots of snake blood. The highly venomous snake is eaten across southeast Asia, where its blood and meat is believed to have curative properties.
Rica placed a laminated list in front of me that ticked off everything cobra gall bladder can help fix. It can detoxify your lungs and blood; cure rheumatism, diabetes, abnormal vaginal discharge, high and low blood pressure; and all sorts of skin problems like acne, allergy, eczema, and rashes. Cobras are basically a wonder drug, or so the list claimed.
But there’s another reason Rica opens her cobra stall at night. Cobras are believed to improve one’s stamina between the sheets. Across Asia, men believe that consuming a cobra’s blood and organs will boost their sexual performance. Rica told me that a lot of men stop by her cobra stall with the hopes that a shot of snake blood will improve their success in the bedroom. But it’s probably all in their heads, she said.
“In my opinion, it’s more of a mental suggestion when it comes to improving male virility,” she explained. “It helps certain people, but doesn’t work for others. Since snakes improve stamina, men might last longer in bed. But they are good for skin, that one I can guarantee.”
“Does it really work?” I asked.
“Ask my regulars,” Rica replied, pointing to the clear-skinned woman in a ponytail sitting next to me. The woman, a travel agent named Carolina, told me she’s been eating snake three times a month for the past three years.
“I used to have pimples all over my face,” Carolina said. “Now it’s wonderful. My whole family believes in the benefits of snake now. The meat particularly is good for the skin. The blood and gall bladder are more for stamina.”
When Rica was a younger woman, she had no idea people ate snakes. She was born in Jakarta and grew up in what is today the largest megacity in Southeast Asia. Cobras exist in Indonesia, but they’re far more common in the jungles and paddies of rural countryside. Pythons, sure. But cobras? In Jakarta? No way.
But when Rica married her husband, the durian vendor, he suggested she open a cobra stall. There were a lot of Japanese and Taiwanese immigrants working and hanging around Mangga Besar, and her husband thought the snake tent would be a hit.
“They told me those people liked to consume snakes,” Rica recalled.
She learned how to cook cobra by reading recipes online. She serves the snake as sate, grilling the tough meat before drenching it in peanut sauce, onions, cucumber, and fiery birds’ eye chili. She also cooks the snake’s organs and serves its blood in a tiny white porcelain cup.
“Could you choose a good one for me?” I asked.
“Sure thing,” Rica said with a wink. And then she plunged her arm into the cobra cage, snatching one of the deadly serpents with her bare hands. The cobras need to keep their fangs and venom to “maximize” the health benefits; de-fanged cobras are seen as lacking the necessary ingredients to improve one’s stamina and vitality. The more venomous the snake, the more potent its effects, Rica explained.
“I get the snakes from Semarang, Serang, or Tegal,” she told me, listing off the different cities. “My source hires a bunch of workers to catch snakes by the kilo and deliver them to Jakarta. I usually order around 100 snakes every ten days. I used to sell different types of snakes, but now I specialize in cobras since they’re the most potent and popular.”
Rica held the pissed-off snake in her hand. It hissed furiously and showed me its tiny fangs.
“The more aggressive the cobra is, the better,” she added. “You get to absorb its strong energy and it will be good for your stamina. King cobras are best, since they’re bigger and more aggressive. But I only bring in king cobra when there’s a special order, since they cost more than normal ones.”
But all this aggression comes at a cost. Rica has been bitten before. She has a deep scar on her left arm from when a cobra sunk its teeth into her back in 2009, sending her to intensive care and keeping her bedridden for months.
Cobra venom is incredibly dangerous. Rica survived the bite, but every year as many as 11,000 other people don’t, according to the International Society on Toxinology. Last year, a young dangdut singer who used a king cobra during her performance died after one bit her on stage.
“It is a risky job, but profitable as well,” Rica told me. “You can sell so many things from just one snake. The skin and the bones can be used to make different kind of oils, ointments, and medications for even more money.”
She pulled the cobra’s head off and drained its blood into a small cup. The dark blood filled the cup up halfway. The cobra’s head rolled off the cutting board, onto the top of the cage. It’s mouth opened and closed slowly as the beheaded creature’s muscles used their last bit of energy.
Rica and her assistant grabbed hold of the headless snake and stripped its skin back. The body was still wiggling when she began to cut out its organs.
“It will continue moving until I barbecue [it],” she said. “Do you want the liver and the heart too? I could barbecue them into satay.”
“Sure,” I said. “Why not.”
She placed the raw gall bladder on a saucer. Next, she added a bit of rice wine and honey to the blood. “Enjoy,” Rica said, pushing the cup towards me. The gall bladder was purple, squishy, and covered in white mucous. I closed my eyes and swallowed it whole, washing it down with a cup of blood. The blood tasted like booze and honey.
The sate was tough and chewy as hell. Snakes are lean creatures, and the meat tastes like it. But the sauce was delicious: A perfect mix of spicy bite and smooth peanut flavor. The whole meal cost me about Rp 100,000 (roughly $7.50 USD). The profits from her booth are enough to allow Rica to put both her children through university.
“No one else in my family wants to touch this business,” she said. “I’m the bravest of them all.”