Snake soup, I’m told, could kill me. I’m all for it; who doesn’t love a bit of danger in their meal? I’m also told that I could potentially be offered the still-beating heart of said snake as a chaser. I am somewhat less keen on that one, and I really hope it’s a mix-up between cultures (it being traditional fare in Vietnam with a shot of vodka).
Snakes represent many different things; for the Chinese, snakes are a symbol not only of virility, sexual potency and good fortune, but also of beauty and wisdom, amongst other things. To be born in the Year of the Snake means that you’ll have pretty much everything going for you: gorgeous, clever and good with money – almost making me regret my own Year of the Rabbit (and I’m pretty sure that snake would eat bunny given half a chance).
So why was I so intent on chowing down on a bowl of snake soup? Was it the hope that I’d suddenly take on the characteristics of one born in the Year of the Snake, becoming a genius accountant overnight, oozing sex appeal from every pore as I strutted my stuff? Not likely; I’d sooner be oozing a faint scent of garlic from the heavily-laced dishes I’d been supping on of late and as for accountancy – eh? No, it is in fact because I’d heard it was worth a trip around the world for. I’d also heard that you could pick your own snake, which appealed to the morbid interest within me.
My grandmother had promised to take me somewhere to eat snake soup, but apparently this isn’t so easy in January, so she got on the phone and called one venue, who called another, and with all this to-ing and fro-ing, we finally found the aptly named Snake King 2 in Causeway Bay (a sister shop to, you guessed it, Snake King 1 in Central).
We arrived to find the place already bustling with people. To my right, white-wellied men with long hair tied back into ponytails chopped and hacked at mysterious meats; behind me a woman wearing what looked like a tea cosy on her head tied Chinese liver sausages together with string, hanging them on the wall behind her in the wearisome methodical fashion one can only gain from mindless jobs done for too many years; next to her, an old man ladled a mysterious concoction into bowls with a shaky hand.
Sadly there were no snakes in sight – apparently, after a number of incidents involving escaped poisonous serpents, the government had cracked down, no longer allowing them to be kept on the premises. They wouldn’t even be able to tell us what breed we were eating. Disappointing, for sure, but I was here to eat, not look, so I comforted myself with the fact that my time of reckoning was nearly upon us.
Noise surrounded us and we joined in, shouting out our order to a harried-looking waiter, which was a bargain at HK$52 for a bowl of soup, or HK$82 for the set meal, including a bowl of Chinese liver sausage rice. I wasn’t sure if he’d heard us but, a few minutes later, four bowls of a thick-looking soup, topped with deep-fried wonton skins and some thin wisps of green, plopped down onto our table. I looked at my ominous bowl of potential death, wondered faintly if I maybe should’ve written a will, then grabbed my spoon and got stuck in.
There was a distinct citrusy flavour to my soup and, upon closer inspection, I spied what appeared to be very thin julienne strips of lemon or possibly lime rind. The green grass-like wisps were some kind of herb – dill, or tarragon – but anything beyond that I simply could not distinguish. Asking didn’t help either, as the answer was an offhand “cooked with things they put with seafood”. Oh. Right. Sure. And the snake? Well…it is like chicken…chicken that looks like a fish fillet. A very, very thin fish fillet. Sometimes, apparently, it’s even served with the snake skin still on, which I’m not sure I would’ve been able to handle; but, you know, it was very pleasant. Hearty, warming and, well, tasty. I picked up another particularly large chunk of snake and popped it into my mouth with a smile.
Somewhere in between starting our meal and finishing it, we’d got chatting to the table next to us who were from one of the Northern provinces in mainland China, and so our snake soup was supplemented with what looked like tiny little baby birds, probably a quail of sorts – it was definitely a day for new foods. As I slurped up the last spoonful from my bowl, it occurred to me that perhaps snake soup wasn’t such a bad way to go after all: as far as deadly poisons go, I’d rather mine were tasty – nay, delicious.
Snake King 2, 24 Percival Street, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong.