When the weather turned cold, older generations of Hong Kongers would turn to one dish to warm them up: snake soup.
The delicacy holds high regard in traditional Chinese medicine, where snake byproducts such as bile and snake wine are treated as panaceas able to cure anything from sore throats to arthritis.
That’s because Chinese herbology works off contrasts—yin versus yang, cold versus hot—and the key to maintaining health is balancing between both.
Snake soup is classified as a yang (陽), or hot, food best consumed during the winter. The Compendium of Materia Medica, an influential Chinese herbology book from 1578, assures that “snake meat is very warming. A wild pig can survive the coldest winter if he eats three snakes.”
In its heyday during the 1980s, snake soup was regarded as a health food, with hundreds of shops in Hong Kong preparing snakes ahead of the winter months for eager customers (snake consumption was and still is largely confined to southern China).
To make the soup, the snakes are first skinned. Strips of meat are then separated from the bones and organs.
The meat is boiled overnight with a combination of ingredients that varies with each recipe: chicken, ham, mushrooms, fish maw, pork bones, mandarin peel, ginger, or abalone.
Then, using starch, it’s turned into geng (羹), a thick, clear soup. Fried wonton skin or lemongrass can be added as a topping.
Most agree that it tastes like chicken.
The dish’s complex preparation meant it was a delicacy served at luxurious banquets and corporate dinners. It was a status symbol that only the wealthy could afford back then. One bowl cost two days’ pay for the average Hong Konger.
Nowadays, it’s hard to find a snake soup restaurant in Hong Kong. There are only about 20 left today, and the most popular one, She Wong Lam, the city’s first and oldest, closed in July because it couldn’t find apprentices who wanted to learn the trade.
“It’s not for everyone,” says Lo Tin-yam, the owner of the now closed shop.
She Wong Lam’s snake handler, Mak Dai-kong, spent years learning how to wrangle and defang venomous snakes, which were kept hidden in wooden drawers inside the shop.
“Once their fangs have been pulled out, they are not poisonous,” Mak told Post Magazine. “I remember my first attempts at handling snakes. I got bitten, but it wasn’t painful at all. Since then, I have never been afraid of snakes.”
But it’s hard to convince younger generations to take up the job of tending to and slaughtering serpents. Alongside incredibly high rent and low wages, there’s little to keep stores afloat.
“One older gentleman claimed to eat a bowl of snake soup every day during winter,” Mai recalls. “However, he wasn’t sure whether anyone in his family would be able to continue the habit, considering that many snake shops have closed in recent years.”
With few to continue the trade, snake masters are quickly aging out of the industry.
“This unique traditional product is not entirely useless in other ways,” says Mak. “It would be a shame to let it disappear.”