When Hong Kong’s heat finally breaks, people seek out winter warmers like clay pot lamb stew and tongue-scorching Sichuan hotpot. But one of the more unexpected cool weather treats is found in fluorescent-lit dens where customers huddle together at round tables, right next to wooden boxes marked with a warning: “Poisonous.” Inside the boxes are snakes. And in the customers’ bowls is a gluey delicacy that has been consumed in China for more than a thousand years: snake soup.
Snake soup is made with five types of snakes commonly found in southeast China: the Chinese cobra (faan6 caan2 tau4 飯鏟頭) and banded krait (gam1 goek3 daai3 金腳帶), which are venomous, as well as the Chinese ratsnake (gwo3 syu6 jung4 過樹榕), the radiated ratsnake (saam1 sok3 sin 三索線) and the long-nosed pit viper (baak6 faa1 se4 白花蛇), which are not. As a Cantonese saying goes, “When the autumnal wind rises, three snakes fatten up.” The first three types of snakes feed heavily before hibernation in winter, making them the most nutritious in autumn and winter – the best seasons to consume snake soup.
“People in southeast China eat snakes because they live near the sea where the coastal wind causes migraines and arthritis,” says Chow Ka-ling, a snake handler and owner of Shia Wong Hip, a snake soup restaurant in Sham Shui Po set up in 1960 by her father, also a snake handler. “Eating snakes strengthens the body, prevents flu and promotes longevity. Snake soup is an ancient recipe that has been passed down for centuries.”
Eating snakes goes as far back as the Liang Dynasty (502-557). Shù yì jì (述異記), a mystery novel by folklore writer Ren Fang (460-508), noted that when a “cyan dragon” was found in the royal court, the emperor ordered the chef to prepare a “dragon stew” for his officials. This dragon stew was in fact snake soup. During the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), calligrapher Dongpo bought some soup in a Huizhou market for his wife, who died of shock when she discovered that it wasn’t seafood but snake stew that she was consuming. Although snake soup has long been in China’s culinary landscape, it was only during the late Qing Dynasty (1636–1912) that the dish was made popular by Gong Taai-si, a wealthy connoisseur of Cantonese cuisine whose family kitchen provided a training ground for many prominent chefs.
Snake soup was among the dishes refined in Gong’s kitchen, and it is now considered the ultimate test for a Cantonese soup chef, who needs to both handle to snake and make the soup. Chow recalls that she was terrified the first time her father asked her to help bag a cobra. “I remember distinctly that it was April Fools’ Day,” she says with a laugh. Since taking up the trade in 1971, she has been bitten by venomous snakes at least twice. “I cure the wounds with Chinese medicine, and got used to handling snakes in time,” she says. “Snakes are like dogs. Some are more aggressive, whereas others may not bite. You learn to tell the temperament of each individual snake by experience.”
The most flavourful soup is made to order, which is why it is important to keep live snakes on hand. When the snakes arrive at her shop, Chow defangs them with personalised clamps, then puts them in boxes made of wood. The wood keeps the environment dry, which snakes prefer. “You cannot place Chinese cobras and other snakes in the same box,” she says. “Chinese cobras are the king of all and they feed on other snakes.”
Then comes the art of making the soup. Chow puts the snake to sleep before chopping off its head, a practice recommended as more humane by the government. Then she debones the creature. Snakes have between 200 and 400 vertebrae with as many ribs attached. Each of those bones is removed and the meat is shredded into thin pieces by hand in order to keep the fibres and add texture to the soup. Along with the snake meat, Chow adds thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms, chicken, edible tree fungus and bamboo shoots – and sometimes fish maws when the soup is served in banquets.
After taking out the meat and bones for making soup, the rest of the snake doesn’t go to waste. Chow says that all parts of a snake are nutritious. The most prized part is the gall bladder, which is to consumed in a single shot, or otherwise infused in alcohol to make snake bile wine. “Before the 1980s, eating snakes was a privilege,” she says. She recalls that a lot of Cantonese opera masters dropped by her shop for a shot of snake gall bladder before their shows. She says it boosted their energy and helped improve the quality of their voices.
Those aren’t the only supposed medicinal properties. Chinese cobras are said to remove discomforts in the middle body, banded kraits are credited with curing swollen feet, and Chinese ratsnakes are said to relieve headaches and joint pain. Chow says the remaining two species promote blood circulation and facilitate the effects of the other three. She also says that snake meat is low in cholesterol and fat but rich in amino acids, which improves skin elasticity.
In Gong’s original recipe, snake soup is a mixture of two soups. There is a base broth made with Jinhua ham, red meat and chicken, which is simmered for six hours. And there is a snake soup comprised of snake bones, sun-dried tangerine peels, longan pulp, dates, sugarcane and ginger, cooked for four hours. The two soups are combined before adding the finely sliced ingredients. Fermented bean curd crisps and dried kaffir lime leaves are tossed in at the end to add crunchiness and remove the snake’s gamey flavour.
While some high-end restaurants still follow that original recipe, most restaurants have simplified it into a simple broth of pork and snake bones that are cooked for an hour. That has made snake soup an affordable and easily accessible treat that can be found throughout Hong Kong. Chow recalls that when she was a child in the 1970s, a bowl of snake soup was HK$3, at a time when she earned between $200 and $500 per month. Today, she sells a medium-sized bowl of snake soup for HK$48 – about the same price as a lunch set in a typical cha chaan teng.
In the winter, Chow sells at least 700 bowls of snake soup every day, peaking at over a thousand during cold snaps. That plummets to less than 100 bowls a day during the summer, which is why Chow also sells a medicinal snake drink – basically snake broth without the added meat.
While snake soup remains a popular dish in Hong Kong, Chow worries it will be difficult to pass her baton to the younger generation. “Who is willing to take up a trade that requires you to train for many years but doesn’t earn you as much as even the cha chaan teng business?” she says. “I took it up because it was my father’s and I wanted to carry on his passion.” Last summer, Mak Dai-kong, the nonagenarian snake handler of century-old snake soup restaurant She Wong Lam in Sheung Wan, finally retired, sparking public concern over the future of this venerable trade.
Sustainability is another concern. The huge demand for snakes in China has endangered their wild population. Currently, the Chinese cobra is evaluated as vulnerable in both the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List and the China Red List, according to the University of Hong Kong’s School of Biological Sciences. The banded krait is of the least concern in the IUCN Red List and marked as endangered in the China Red List. The Chinese ratsnake, radiated ratsnake and long-nosed pit viper, though not evaluated in the ICUN Red List, are considered as endangered in the China Redlist.
In Hong Kong, not all shops are aware of the ecological impact caused by sourcing wild-caught snakes. Ser Wong Fun and She Wong Lam source snakes from licensed farms in Guangxi and Guizhou, Shia Wong Hip’s snakes are wild-caught in Asia. Chow says she does this in the interests of her customers; she doesn’t trust the quality of farming practices in China.
For now, she says she will sustain the business for as long as she can. And there’s no sign that the snake soup culture will slither into hibernation soon. Many customers at these traditional shops aren’t silver-haired. “I remember a young man who brought his overseas friends to my shop,” Chow smiles. “He told me his father used to take him to have snake soup when he was a child. When he left Hong Kong to study in Canada, he missed the taste of snake soup so much that once he graduated, he returned immediately for the soup, taking with him his friends and his father who was then in a wheelchair. Sadly, his father passed away recently. Now alone, he still frequents my shop for the soup – a fond memory of home.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect concerns about the ecological sustainability of eating snakes. Zolima CityMag is dedicated to exploring Hong Kong’s culture and history with respect and open-mindedness, but we are also aware that some traditional foods may have a negative impact on the natural environment. As such, we do not condone eating snake soup, but we have also decided to maintain this article as a reflection of an important part of Hong Kong’s culinary identity.