When winter descends on Hong Kong, crowds fill small eateries in its cities. Some of these diners might have only a few tables, but all will have a large, wooden chest of drawers. Open one of those drawers and you may come face to face with a writhing snake—who may soon end up on your plate.
These diners are the se wong of Hong Kong, traditional restaurants that butcher and cook snakes into a variety of dishes and drinks. During the winter, one dish becomes particularly popular: se gang, or snake soup. In traditional Chinese cooking, snake meat is considered to have a high amount of yang, or warmth, making it the perfect dish to counteract the yin (coolness) of winter. As snakes also have a longstanding healing reputation in traditional Chinese medicine (improving everything from joint pain to circulation), the warm broth also serves as a health booster.
The first step in making se gang is to select the snakes. Anywhere from two to five different species can go into a single batch. Though the snakes are typically not endangered species, it should be noted that they are often skinned alive, a practice that many decry as cruel. Chefs shred the flesh into thick strands, then cook the strips in a broth along with the bones, chicken, Jinhua ham, pork bones, and sometimes fish maw or abalone. To add flavor and cut the gaminess of the snake meat, soup-makers add black mushrooms, ginger, and mandarin peel. After boiling overnight, the final product is served with lemongrass and chrysanthemum petals, as well as thin, fried squares of dough for dipping.
The slow-boiling and diverse ingredients give se gang a complex flavor. Some tasters liken the dish to hot and sour soup, with a touch of sweetness. Others find it fishy and somewhat spicy. The snake meat itself has a tough texture and subtle flavor that is sometimes compared to fish or eel. One taster was even reminded of meaty, earthy mushrooms. Most, however, claim that it tastes just like chicken.
Need to Know
Although the the practice is dying out, there are a handful of good, traditional se wong remaining in Hong Kong. Their names often include a variation of the phrase “se wong” (蛇王), followed by the name of the family that owns the store (such as “Ser Wong Fun”). A bowl of snake soup usually runs about $5 to $7.
Where to Try It
Shia Wong Hip170 Ap Liu Street, Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong
A snake-specializing eatery in Sham Shiu Po that serves items such as snake soup and snake gall bladder in alcohol.
She Wong Lam13 Hillier Street, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong
This small shop claims to have been the first in Hong Kong to sell fresh snake meat and snake soup. The current butcher has been in the business for more than 70 years.