There’s a joke in Hong Kong that pokes fun at the cultural gulf between those who eat snake and those who don’t: “How do you know that Adam and Eve were not Chinese? Because they ate the apple and not the snake.” Snake as a meal hasn’t travelled well, unlike other Cantonese dishes that are staples at Chinese restaurants in Canada. And to the North American palate, snake soup especially is unappetizing. While one can find the dish, made from frozen imported snake meat, in upscale restaurants catering to Chinese-Canadians, it doesn’t have the ubiquity of chow mein or sweet and sour pork.
My own association with snakes was something different. When I asked for a kitten as a child, my dad gave me a pet snake. (My mother was allergic to fur.) He popped over to a ravine at lunch and came home from work with a baby garter snake in his breast pocket. Before dinner, we put a rock, a water bowl and some newspaper in a terrarium and welcomed Corey to her new home.
So on a recent trip to Hong Kong, a city known for its cuisine, I tried to hide my alarm when my cousin, who lives there, informed me we were heading out for snake soup. In Hong Kong, as in many parts of China, snake is considered as delicious as its ocean-bound cousin, the eel. It’s also said to be healthy. According to traditional beliefs, snake has heating properties. You eat it during the winter to warm your blood and encourage your qi, your energy, to move around. It’s also purportedly an aphrodisiac and increases male “potency.” There are little shops that open only in the colder months to serve snake soup to those who still believe in the old ways.
But these days, fewer snake soup shops open each winter. There are reportedly bureaucratic hurdles to importing snakes from mainland China; after the SARS crisis, the Chinese halted all snake exports. Another theory is that winters aren’t as cold thanks to climate change and the “urban heat island” effect; people no longer feel the need to warm up.
More significantly, food culture is changing. Just as we’ve become used to the seasonless supermarket where you can buy asparagus at Christmas, the Hong Kongese are losing touch with seasonal eating. According to Alan Smart, an anthropology professor at the University of Calgary who studies Hong Kong, the old street markets where people shopped every day are being replaced by supermarkets. If you can’t get snake soup in July, who wants it in November?
Lucky for us, my cousin knew of one hole-in-the-wall in Kowloon that stayed open six months of the year. The snake soup shop was on a busy street, down from the Top Fight Thai Boxing and Health Therapy Club. A sign above the door featured a viper, and inside there were four small tables. The place had been open for 40 years and was run down, the tile floor chipped and grey. At the back was a handsome wooden chest of drawers reminiscent of the antique Chinese furniture sold in high-end shops in Canada. Inside these drawers, however, were live snakes waiting to be cooked.
A customer at the next table, a regular who appeared to be in his 50s, leaned over to explain that the snakes they served were brought here by the shop’s boss, live, from Guangdong. They kill them swiftly in the kitchen, chopping off their heads, before making the soup. “We prefer wild snakes,” he said. “Because they eat a lot of things. If you eat snake from a farm, they only eat one thing.” Then he puffed out his chest and said the soup made him strong.
Smart isn’t fearful these old food ways will be lost to this generation. “Some of the things you are seeing elsewhere, like the revitalization of local food, are happening there,” he said. The ebb of snake soup is nothing more than a dip in the trend cycle. Our soup arrived and it was good—thick with meat, and flavoured with thinly shredded lime leaf. They say snake tastes like chicken, but really it has a richer, deeper flavour and the cooked meat looks just like snake flesh. To be honest, I didn’t eat much. I lost my appetite when I turned to my right and saw they had a live snake on display in a terrarium with a rock, a water bowl and some newspaper.
The beast with two brains
A two-headed albino kingsnake (above) has visitors flocking to the Skazka zoo in Yalta, Ukraine.