Hong Kong’s snake soup kings
You might think a hot helping of chicken noodle soup, a few shots of strong vodka or an escape flight to a tropical Thai beach might be best to warm you up when winter hits.
But for many Hong Kongers, it’s a steaming bowl of shredded snake soup.
Snake meat, once skinned but still raw, is a light pink flesh. Thrown into boiling water, it turns an off-white, pale beige hue -- resembling cooked chicken.
It tastes like chicken too -- though a tad tougher.
Minced dark mushrooms, finely julienned chicken, fragrant chopped ginger and other herbs and spices fill out the recipe, making for a hearty broth.
In traditional Chinese medicine, snake meat is believed to be a “warming” food that heats the body -- a property known as “yang” in Chinese. Lamb is also thought to have this quality, while fish and duck are believed to possess “cooling” properties -- or “yin” in Chinese.
When temperatures fall in Hong Kong, hard-core believers head for the few dozen snake restaurants that hide in the nooks and crannies of the city’s densely packed streets to balance the winter’s yin with the snake’s yang.
The first three restaurants below are some of Hong Kong’s most famous snake shops. Though the first two words of each restaurant name look different in English, they all mean the same in Chinese: Snake King. The last word is in the founding family’s name.
Shia Wong Hip
Chau Ka Ling, owner of the 48-year-old snake restaurant Shia Wong Hip, says she can’t extinguish your fears about eating snakes, but she can extol their health benefits in the hopes you’ll come around.
“I can tell you that snakes have no fat and no cholesterol,” says Chau. “After you cook it in soup, you won’t find a drop of fat on the water surface -- unlike when you boil chicken.”
Chau pats the clear complexion of her cheek, adding that snake meat is also good for the skin and for curing bodily ailments.
When she was younger she skinned snakes eight hours a day for nine years then developed a bad back. A bowlful of snake helps her pain go away.
“In fact, I think poisonous snakes are more beneficial,” says Zhou. “When I eat their meat my back feels better. Sometimes I’ll have two bowls.”
Along with snake meat, Chau says that snake bile and snake alcohol mixed with Chinese herbs have healing properties.
She fills a shot glass half-full with a dark green cloudy liquid -- bile mixed with “baijiu,” a strong Chinese white grain alcohol.
The concoction has a flavor that might be likened to alcoholic kiwi juice with an acidic after taste.
If you’re willing to go all out on a full snake banquet, Shia Wong Hip is the place to go.
Menu offerings include a glistening snake skin casserole, dark golden-brown fried snake meat and, in case you want to try something new, stir-fried crocodile meat.
Tip: Don’t put your hand inside any of the brown wooden drawers. The two Chinese characters in red at the opening of each cubicle warn: “Poisonous Snakes."
Don’t worry, there are no venomous vipers that live here. The "poison" label is a Hong Kong government requirement to notify customers they’re dining in the company of snakes -- and perhaps on their brothers or sisters. And they’ll still bite.
170 Ap Liu St., Sham Shui Po MTR, Exit A2. Turn left and the restaurant will be on your left just a few doors down. Look for the dark wooden drawers that house your serpents before they’re turned into soup. A bowl costs HK$35 (US$4.50).
She Wong Lam
While Shia Wong Hip might be the more raucous restaurant, She Wong Lam in Hong Kong Island’s gentrifying Sheung Wan district, appears as a more basic business.
A few fluorescent bulbs light the interior. Three small tables stand quietly near the back. Red plastic stools offer a temporary seat to slurp your soup before you continue on your way.
But while Shia Wong Hip has been open for nearly five decades, She Wong Lam boasts a history more than twice as long -- 103 years and counting.
Its oldest employee, one Mr. Mak, was hired by his grandfather at the age of 18. Now nicknamed “The General,” his full head of white hair and mottled liver spots across his face show off his seniority. He's 84.
“Aiyo,” exclaims General Mak in Cantonese, as he frowns. “I’ve been bitten countless times by snakes -- but never by a poisonous one.”
“Don’t grab it too tight and it won’t bite,” he advises.
Like Shia Wong Hip, dark brown drawers stand around this restaurant guarding their serpentine contents.
At the same time, a sepia-colored photograph of the shop’s founder, Tai Lam Lou, keeps watch over all.
His grandson and current manager, Lou, who only wants to be known by his surname, reveals his grandfather started the business only with the intent of selling snake products -- not snake soup.
“We only started selling snake soup several years ago at the behest of some of our customers,” says Lou. “Now we sell about 100 bowls a day.”
A serving size here is the same as at Shia Wong Hip, though the broth is a bit watered down and the snake chunks fewer -- though that might be preferred if this is your first attempt at snake soup.
Lemongrass and crispy wonton skins are served in addition.
Snake-infused alcohol is also available. Whole snakes, their eyes cloudy and unseeing, sit in old Blue Girl beer bottles just to the left of the entrance. You can’t miss them.
“Snake bile helps alleviate rheumatism, especially in old people with sore joints,” says Lou. “It stops coughing and it gets rid of phlegm.”
Tip: To find this restaurant, look for two snakes in their own cages at the front of the restaurant greeting guests as they enter. If Mr. Lou is around, ask him to tell you about his first snake memory. It involves one of his grandfather’s workers “snapping off the tail of a snake” and giving it to him as it continued to wriggle in his hands. Lou’s chuckle should make you smile as he reminisces back to when he five or six years old.
13 Hillier St., Sheung Wan, Hong Kong Island. Sheung MTR, Exit A2. A bowl of soup costs HK$45 (US$5.75).
Ser Wong Fun
Still, not everyone likes a hot bowl of steaming snake soup.
One peculiar paradox for the popular Ser Wong Fun is that this restaurant’s owner, Ng Gwai Fan, counts herself among those who wince at the thought.
“She’s afraid of snakes,” says Gigi Ng, the owner’s daughter and fast-talking media relations manager. “She might put a finger into the soup just to taste it but that’s it.”
Her mother, standing beside her, appears to understand as she crinkles her nose up and shakes her head and hands in the air.
But Ser Wong Fun, with a history of 125 years, is what keeps her around and what keeps the profits rolling in -- even if she cannot stomach the serpents herself.
Daughter Gigi explains that her mother helped her husband over the years until he passed away, and had to take over the business herself. The restaurant’s prime location in Hong Kong’s Central district has likely contributed to its popularity.
Ser Wong Fun is located directly underneath the city’s famous Central Escalator, the world’s longest series of covered escalators. The transport system is used by many of the city’s expatriates to commute from their homes in the upper Hong Kong hills to office skyscrapers that line Victoria Harbor below.
Upon entering the restaurant, look to the right and you’ll see a massive steel pot that holds the snake soup made that day.
While Shia Wong Hip and She Wong Lam are more casual eateries, this establishment is the most high-end and most expensive of them all.
Tip: For those squeamish about snake, Ser Wong Fun has a wide-ranging menu (sans snake) including Western favorites like sweet and sour pork and stir-fried eggplant, as well as local favorites like honey-glazed char siew roast pork and roast chicken.
46-48 Cochrane St., Central, Hong Kong Island. Central MTR, Exit D1, then a five-minute walk toward the Central Escalator. A bowl of soup costs HK$85 (US$11).
In case you want to spare no expense for snake soup while eating in the lap of luxury at the same time, you can head to the Island Shangri-La’s Summer Palace.
There you'll find a Michelin two-star restaurant -- one of just a handful of Cantonese restaurants in Hong Kong with the two-star ranking.
You’ll also be paying two-star Michelin prices.
Supreme Court Road, Admiralty, Hong Kong Island. Admiralty MTR. Exit F. Walk through Pacific Place Shopping Center and follow the signs for the hotel. A bowl of soup costs HK$300 (US$38.50) with 24-hour advance notice required.