At Hong Kong's Se Wong Heep, every drawer is labelled with two crimson Chinese characters: “poisonous snakes.” A bowl of its thick, slow-cooked snake soup is the perfect to counter the yin effects of a cold winter.
Photos by the author.
The temperature is still in the balmy 70s, but that's chillier than usual in subtropical Hong Kong, and people are already wearing parkas. Winter is coming—well, the subtropical version of winter, anyway—and that means it's time for snake soup.
Twenty years ago, my walk from school to home would take me through a wet market, the kind where severed ox heads would hang from hooks in butcher stalls and fishmongers hawked live seafood—squid limbs spilling everywhere and stray crabs occasionally running loose. On some days, a "snake king" would set up a stall and charm the legless reptiles. It was an act to entice passersby into sampling his thick snake soup.
That wet market is still around, but snake dances are no longer found on the side of the street, so I visited a blue-collar district called Sham Shui Po in search of a good bowl of soup. Se Wong Heep (literally "Snake King Heep") is a popular neighborhood place for snakes, just a seven-minute walk away from another well-known eatery—the world's cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant, Tim Ho Wan. Se Wong Heep is unassuming and tucked behind street stalls selling power tools, surplus military apparel, and cheap electronic gadgets. I walked by a few coiled snakes on display in glass boxes and occupied a stool.
There's something alluring about restaurants that only serve a handful of dishes, where the menu fits on a single page. When they cook the same thing over and over and over again, you can be sure that the thousands of man-hours put into perfecting the craft translate to a mean bowl of soup.
Se Wong Heep has been around since 1965, and little has changed within its walls. The lighting is fluorescent, the walls are tiled, and the tables are communal. Orders are filled within a minutes, the waitstaff need only to ladle thick soup into a bowl and bus it over. The dining hall has two large wooden cupboards. Every drawer is labelled with two crimson Chinese characters: "poisonous snakes."
She dug her hand into one of the wooden drawers and plucked out a Chinese cobra. It flicked its tongue at me but slid back into its den, probably annoyed that someone disturbed its sleep.
Restaurants like Se Wong Heep aren't exactly the equivalent to your corner coffee shop, but they're common enough. A quick search on Openrice, a comprehensive online listing of the city's restaurants, yields 48 snake soup establishments in the city, and that doesn't count regular Chinese restaurants that also serve the dish, including the Island Shangri-La's two-Michelin-star Cantonese restaurant, Summer Palace.
The dish is actually served year-round, but traditional Chinese medicinal texts say that snake meat is a food with yang character and warms the body—perfect to counter the yin effects of a cold winter. Apparently, it's also good for improving skin and nourishes one's blood.
The recipe is simple. Snake bones are tossed in with pork bones, chicken, and a popular Chinese cured ham called jinhua huotui. The broth is reduced in a large vat overnight, and served with snake meat whenever it's ordered. When the bowl arrives a table, diners add their own garnish: fried dough squares (like wonton skins) for a bit of crunch, and slivered lemon leaves for extra character. There is absolutely no MSG.
Snake soup has been around since the third century BCE, but consumption mainly took place in Southeastern China. It wasn't until the 1700s that it became popular across the country, though almost exclusively among the wealthy and respected. Aristocrats loved the dish because it contained multiple ingredients and took a full day to prepare, so only the wealthy and respected could consume it. But improved logistics in the 20th century made it possible to popularize snake soup, and it became something that normal folk could enjoy, too.
Se Wong Heep gets its snakes from Malaysia and Indonesia. I asked if there were any snake farms in Hong Kong, but Chau Ka Ling, the proprietor, laughed and said, "There aren't enough snakes in Hong Kong to last us a day!" She dug her hand into one of the wooden drawers and plucked out a Chinese cobra. It flicked its tongue at me but slid back into its den, probably annoyed that someone disturbed its sleep. A banded krait tumbled out of another drawer. Several rat snakes avoided the light as she opened yet another.
A waitress mumbled, "Yee! What the hell is she doing?" Finally, she clutched a Chinese moccasin and carried it through the restaurant, an uncommon sight there. The snakes' fangs have been removed, but some of the wait staff were still a little spooked. Chau dunked it into the glass display case by the entrance and everyone went back to sipping their thick soup, content that all of the reptiles were again locked up.
There isn't anything nefarious about the trade, at least in Hong Kong, and none of the snakes being eaten are endangered. But the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) claims that "the skinning of lives snakes for their bile and meat is cruel and unnecessary." The organization goes on to say that since the snakes that become food are captured from the wild and fattened on farms, continued consumption of snake soup puts pressure on wild populations.
In true Chinese fashion, the entire snake is used for food, including its innards. In particular, the gall bladder and the bile within it are used to make wine. But the SPCA says there is a risk of contracting acute hepatitis or parasites from consuming snake bile. Snake wine can also be made by marinating the entire snake in sorghum wine. Last year, a woman was bitten by a viper that had survived for three months while submerged in the wine, and had to be treated with anti-venom. Cooking snakes can be hazardous, too. Even a severed head can retain its reflexes and sink its fangs into a chef's hand.
But those risks are only taken by people who are looking for the super-exotic, like Leonardo DiCaprio's shot of snake blood downed on Khao San Road in The Beach. My fellow diners in Se Wong Heep are perfectly content with their slow-cooked, thick soup, packed with chunks of pink snake meat and the occasional strip of chicken. I wolfed it down and then moved onto a bowl of glutinous rice with lap cheong on the side. By the time my bowls were empty, I actually did feel a lot warmer. It could have just been my body working on the heavy meal, but who knows? Maybe those doctors from millennia ago were right about snakes.
And the bill? Just shy of US $10.