What do you think of when we ask about the weirdest and most bizarre food you have ever eaten? Snails from France? Kangaroo meat from Australia? Or grilled bugs that you might find in Southeast Asia? As for Hong Kong, an international and vibrant city with diverse culture, we also have our own kind of ‘weird’ food that might wow the crowd—snakes!
Recently I joined a street food challenge organized by the Global Mixers: a team of students who are dedicated to promoting campus diversity, integration, and organizing activities to enrich students’ cultural exposure. The Global Mixers took our new students from around the world on a street food challenge, and one stop is a snake soup restaurant. Before elaborating on how we cook snakes—with various embellishments to turn them into mouth-watering delights—let’s see what our inbound exchange students said about their first try of this intimidating animal.
For Hongkongers, we stack brittle chips and herbs on top of the snake soup to add more layers of texture and flovour, and then proceed to having a heaped spoonful of it.
If you don’t mind me ruining the surprise for you, based on our global perspective, snake tastes pretty much like chicken. What’s more, deep fried snake is just as crispy as deep fried chicken. The dish was basically made with chunks of snake meat, which was chopped into small pieces and deep fried after being marinated with salt and secret herbs. You may ask… why? Why snake? If it tastes pretty much like chicken, why slaughter these reptiles for the little flesh they have on their bodies? Wouldn’t it be easier to have chicken instead?
Here’s a quick history lesson: the snake-eating tradition was passed down from our ancestors based around Southern China. In Chinese culture, we differentiate food types according to the functions or impacts they have on our bodies after eating. For instance, “yang” warms our bodies and “yin” has a cooling function. Snakes are believed to be our winter saviour, keeping us warm during freezing weather, as it is believed to promote blood circulation. Eating snake is basically like installing a natural heater inside our bodies. Who doesn’t want to be warm during winter?
On top of that, the most common way to enjoy this traditional delicacy is snake soup. According to the owner of the snake eatery that we visited (Shia Wong Hip), the base of the snake soup is made of 30 catties of snake meat and bones, pork bones, two old chickens, black fungus, Jinhua ham, ginger, lemon leaves, and mandarin peel. Because of these ingredients, the flavour of the snake ‘hodgepodge’ is built in layers. Snakes do not have enough flavour to offer a strong tasting broth. This is why it should be cooked with other bones or meat to add more punch. It also explains why snake tastes like chicken. First, the snake comes with the strong and abundant taste of meat; however one would not be able to tell if it was chicken, snake, or pork. Then comes the delicious taste of the chewy snake flesh, which is nicely accompanied by soft black fungus. The brittle chips on top provide a hard crumble to complement the tenderness of the soup. This is where the warmth in your body kicks in. Here you go. This is how we do it—by chopping the snake into small pieces and braising it with other ingredients for hours.
Apart from serving snake soup, the eatery owner also offered us a shot of snake tequila, which is regarded as medicinal liquor by some locals. We were told that the tequila is made with venomous snake bile. it is made by steeping snakes in alcohol for many months or years, in addition to using various herbs and spices. The exact recipe is top secret, but you can tell each shot costs a lot. As such, it was very generous of the restaurant owner to offer this to us, especially as part of the exchange students’ Hong Kong adventure.
Wait a minute, do you think this is where our story ends? No way! After the feast, two living snakes were taken out from their boxes and handed to us. We were invited to have a close encounter with the snakes. The eatery host even played with the venomous one right in front of us. It was crazy yet memorable!
This food challenge might intimidate you a bit, but what else can I say? Welcome to Hong Kong, guys! There are more things to explore than you might think!
(Illustration by Pearl Law)