Snake's on the menu

A favourite winter meal in Hong Kong

Paradise - - In Paradise | Contents -

Aline of cus­tomers stands pa­tiently out­side a non­de­script shop in Hong Kong’s Sham Shui Po Dis­trict, in the north-west­ern sec­tion of the Kowloon Penin­sula.

A row of flu­o­res­cent lights ex­poses the shop’s jum­bled mess.

The tiled walls are cov­ered with news­pa­per clip­pings and coloured pa­per filled with Chi­nese sym­bols, the shelves stacked with an eclec­tic col­lec­tion of plas­tic bags, glass jars, and var­i­ous uten­sils.

De­spite the shop’s di­shev­elled ap­pear­ance, the tables and chairs crammed into its small in­te­rior are filled with pa­trons eat­ing from bowls.

Cu­ri­ous, I no­tice a per­spex box at the front right of the shop par­tially masked with more signs and Chi­nese char­ac­ters. At the top of one sign are two hand-writ­ten words in English: ‘snake soup'.

In tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine, snake is renowned for warm­ing the body and for heal­ing ben­e­fits, said to pro­mote blood cir­cu­la­tion and ease arthri­tis. Snake soup has been con­sumed in China for over 2000 years.

I’m ac­com­pa­nied by a Hong Kong lo­cal, who sug­gests we try snake soup, some­thing she’s en­joyed many times. I de­cline but ask her what she likes about snake soup.

“Snake soup’s a sooth­ing comfort food for the Hong Kong Chi­nese to eat, es­pe­cially dur­ing winter,” she says. “We aren’t able to make this kind of soup at home, so there’s al­ways a mar­ket for cus­tomers who love snake soup.”

She in­forms me cooked snake tastes sim­i­lar to chicken, although slightly tougher.

The Shia Wong Hip diner has been serv­ing snake soup since 1965 and its pro­pri­etor, Chau Ka Ling, known as Hong Kong’s ‘snake queen’ is a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion server of the lo­cal favourite. As a child, she was trained by her father

Snake soup’s a sooth­ing comfort food for the Hong Kong Chi­nese to eat, es­pe­cially dur­ing winter.

to han­dle snakes. Now in her 50s, she’s a li­censed snake catcher and live snake man­ager. The snakes are stored at the rear of the diner, in a series of brown wooden draw­ers, each bear­ing a bright red stamp in Chi­nese: ‘poi­sonous snakes’.

Shia Wong Hip im­ports its snakes from China, In­done­sia and Malaysia. They use five types of snakes to make their soup. Other in­gre­di­ents in­clude shred­ded le­mon leaves, vine­gar, black fun­gus and man­darin peel. Also avail­able are fried snake balls and bar­be­cued snake. Or for a more ro­bust con­coc­tion, there’s a power soup that in­cludes lizards, silk­worms and sea­horses. A drop of snake gall blad­der wine may help with di­ges­tion.

Shia Wong Hip’s snake soup is fa­mous, pos­si­bly be­cause it in­cludes greater pro­por­tions of snake than its com­peti­tors. At $HKG75 (about PGK30) for a large and $HKG45 for a small bowl, it's an eco­nom­i­cal meal. Af­ter eat­ing, cus­tomers can re­quest to hold a snake. The diner also sells prod­ucts rang­ing from snake wine to snake skin hand­bags and belts.

Air Ni­ug­ini flies from Port Moresby to Hong Kong three times weekly. See airni­ug­ini.com.pg.

Dish­ing it out ... snake soup at Shia Wong Hip diner.

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