World's Strangest Aphrodisiacs
Some people put on a strong aftershave. Others cue up a little Barry White. Still others go a different route when they’re looking to get in the mood: they drink a glass of cobra blood.
Sound strange? It won’t if you visit China. To some men there—and in other parts of Asia—imbibing the blood of a venomous snake is as conducive to seduction as the soulful tones of Barry.
The concept of the aphrodisiac—a substance that, when consumed, enhances sexual performance—exists in almost every culture, and dates back as far as ancient Egypt (when amorous couples reportedly ate wine-soaked water lilies to amp up their passion). Martha Hopkins, author of InterCourses: An Aphrodisiac Cookbook, explains that “historically, foods that mimicked certain body parts were believed to aid those same body parts, including sexual organs.” That would explain certain populations’ affinity for sea cucumber—as well as powdered rhino horn.
Thanks to centuries of traditional Chinese medicine—which links particular ingredients to an amplified sex drive—most aphrodisiacs can be found in Asia. In Korea, the hagfish, or slime eel, takes the shape of an enviably large member and emits a slimy substance when touched, likely accounting for its status as an elixir of love. And there is perhaps no more symbolic aphrodisiac than the balut—a duck egg hosting a partially gestated fetus—hawked in the Philippines as commonly as movie theater popcorn.
Other purported aphrodisiacs get their potency from actual toxins, which irritate (some might say “inflame”) the bodies of those who eat them. Perhaps the best-known example of this sort is good old Spanish fly—an acidic beetle secretion prized for its ability to cause swelling on contact; or fugu (blowfish), which can lead to both pleasurable tingling and much-less-pleasurable death.
Despite these risks—and despite the fact that there’s little medical evidence to back up most aphrodisiac claims—many cultures still embrace the belief that certain foods can kick up one’s sex drive. In the end, an aphrodisiac’s effectiveness likely has the simplest explanation: the power of suggestion—and some very wishful thinking.
“Aphrodisiacs are all about the imagination—whether you’re eating cobra or sipping hot chocolate,” says Hopkins. “The mind-set behind it is really what counts.”
Cobra BloodSouthern China, SoutheastAsia, and the Philippines
Part of cobra blood’s supposed potency is linked to the danger of catching and consuming it, a Cantonese tradition dating back to the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220). And yes, catching it kills hundreds of people each year. Aficionados consume it straight or with alcohol—either way, the drink contains choice bits of flesh.
Where to Find It: The Snake Village outside Hanoi in Vietnam as well as at chain restaurant Xin Li Zhi Wan in Guangzhou, China.
Cost: $80 per pound.
One look at this large, fleshy, sausage-shaped sea creature (which reportedly stiffens and squirts fluid when disturbed) is all you need to understand why sea cucumber has a long history as a male performance-enhancer. In China, it’s usually sold in markets dried; cooking it is a lengthy process involving days of soaking, boiling, and seasoning. The end result, though, is apparently rich, buttery, and tender (something like pork fat).
Where to Find It: In Chinese restaurants around the world.
Cost: $3 per pound.
BalutThe Philippines and Southeast Asia
In the Philippines, this sidewalk snack—a duck egg that contains a fetus about 20 days into gestation—is as common as a New York pretzel. Served by vendors who belt out their fetal wares with the chant “baluuuut,” it is considered a delicacy in many countries. The egg is typically tapped, then flipped upside down. The liquid is drunk and then the egg is peeled to reveal part of a duck fetus imbedded in the white, accented by the odd feather.
Where to Find It: All over major city centers of the Philippines as well as in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Cost: As little as $1 each.
Skink (Lizard) FleshNorth Africa
Hardly the sexiest lizard, this small leaf-eating little critter still possesses the power of seduction. Credited for making the eater irresistible, the skink saw its rise to amorous fame in ancient Greece, where Pliny the Elder, in Natural History, insisted its muzzle and feet should be steeped in wine with rocket seed and drunk to ignite sexual vigor.
Where to Find It: Today skinks are more commonly kept as pets than consumed as aphrodisiacs, though native tribes in North Africa are still said to eat them.
Cost: $30–$100, though of course if caught crossing your path, they’re free.
Bird’s Nest SoupChina
The nests made by Asian swifts—which employ the cave-dwelling birds’ own saliva as a sort of mortar—have been prized for their aphrodisiac properties by centuries of Chinese. Known locally as “caviar of the East,” the nests are carefully harvested from places that make collection challenging, resulting in an expensive product. One recipe: soak the nest in water overnight, remove loose feathers, and boil, adding rock sugar at the end.
Where to Find It: Restaurants in Bangkok’s Chinatown and luxury hotels like the Liu at the Conrad Hotel and Chang Palace at Shangri-La in China.
Cost: $100 an ounce.
The secretions of a certain type of European blister beetle—which, when applied to human flesh, cause irritation and swelling—have been used to induce tumescence since the days of Julius Caesar. The Marquis de Sade reportedly used them to fuel his exploits; even today the acidic content in the secretions, called cantharidin, is used for animal husbandry in the U.S. Another irony is Spanish fly’s other Viagra-like side effect: priapism, that pesky persistent erection that often requires medical attention.
Where to Find It: True cantharides is illegal but distilled versions can be found in apothecaries all over Europe.
Cost: As little as $3 a bottle.
Wolf MeatThe Philippines and Mongolia
Though man’s best friend is the more commonly consumed ingredient, wolves are a popular aphrodisiac, particularly during winter months (ask any Mongolian). In the Philippines it’s prepared adobo style, marinated with vegetables, and also served in kilawin, a vinegar-based dish. Beyond the obvious explanation—that any animal that can howl is undeniably sexy—wolf’s warming effect is associated with an eater’s sexual upsurge.
One of the most poisonous sea-dwellers, the blowfish (or fugu) is a prized aphrodisiac. Along with having an ugly mug, it can be deadly: chefs have to earn a special license to prepare the toxic ocean resident. The jury is out on what part is responsible for its passion-inducing power: some say it’s the tingling sensation one gets after eating the nontoxic part of its body, while others insist that the sake-soaked testicles are the true prize.
Where to Find It: In restaurants all over Japan.
Cost: $100–$200 per dish.
Leaf-Cutter AntsSouth America
An industrious ant known in South America as hormiga culona, or “large-bottomed ant,” leaf-cutters were first prized for their frisky-making powers by pre-Columbian cultures. The wings and legs of the queens are painstakingly separated before the ants are soaked in salty water and roasted. Gifting the ants to newlyweds is still practiced today.
Tiger PenisChina, Taiwan, and South Korea
Tiger Woods jokes aside, this is one of the world’s most distasteful aphrodisiacs, as it’s partially responsible for the tiger’s near extinction. The market for it is mostly Asian, as traditional Chinese medicine has credited the rare member with bumping up male stamina. Though virtually every part of the animal is turned into some kind of “medicinal” treatment, tiger penis is most often served as a soup, boiled sometimes along with tiger bone, and spiced.
Rhinoceros HornAfrica and China
The demand for powdered rhino horn—a singularly potent symbol of power and sexual prowess—has sadly caused the near decimation of the black rhinoceros species in Africa. Most typically used (illegally) in Chinese medicine and in northern Indian tribes, the horn is ground up and served in a soup.
Where to Find It: Rhino horn is, for good reason, illegal. Most often poached in Africa, the major—and unfortunately, increasing—demand is in Asia.