Australia's favourite food blogger, Not Quite Nigella, aka Lorraine Elliott experiences Hong Kong just as the locals do, eating an array of exotic snake products and exploring the dried food markets.
It’s that smell – the smell of Asia. The one that tells you that you are home or at least in a completely different country. It’s a strange feeling that I get when I step off the plane because I’ve never lived here but somehow an instinct tells me that I’m back home, as if it knows that childhood holidays spent here and a father from Hong Kong affords me that luxury.
Today I’m seeing it today as a local would. As if to demonstrate that, the first introduction to local foods is a doozy. Snake soup followed by snake bile, snake wine and then snake… penis? The group of Australian food writers I'm with realises we’ve never actually contemplated a snake’s reproductive organ. Who knew that they had penises?
Gibson Cheung is a third generation snake restaurateur. It’s a business that is slowly dwindling, its demise brought on by the difficulty in procuring snakes. He tells us that his grandfather used to buy hundreds of snakes for the same price he pays for one, and that one hundred would be sold in a week – now he is lucky to harvest a few a week. Most go to the affluent Chinese market that can afford to pay more for the snakes. Previously, he had four stores just in Sham Shiu Po but now he has two, having bought out another snake store which was closing because there was no future generation to take it over. "I’m an animal activist”, Gilbert says in his perfect Canadian English accent as he acknowledges that this is at odds with his job.
The snake soup is filled with sliced mushrooms, thinly sliced snake meat, wood ear mushrooms, chicken, tangerine peel and ginger – it's a warming soup. Snake is a winter food because it is said to raise temperatures so the snake business is a vulnerable one during summer time when customers don’t tend to eat it. We watch as an elderly man shakes a copious amount of white pepper on his bowl before picking up his spoon. You can also add a little thinly sliced dried lemon leaf or pieces of deep fried dough.
The snakes used can range from a watersnake to a land snake. Copperhead racers are popular as are cobras, while the expensive king cobra usually goes to the Chinese market. Poisonous snakes are said to be more prized than the non-venomous because they believe that the snake must live with its own poison and therefore it must be a superior type of snake.
Much of the snake meat served here is frozen and the live snake out the front is designed as a lure to entice curiosity and customers – indeed putting a king cobra in the cage is ideal marketing and this draws crowds and customers. The live ones are sold to customers who require them for Chinese medicine. We try a serving of snake meat which is sold as a set with snake soup and rice for $HKD80 ($10).
Snake wine packs a punch – with 30 per cent alcohol, it tastes like a spirit and is said to be good for an upset stomach or gas. Gilbert recommends gargling it before swallowing it to get the full effect.
We leave the snake shop and walk around to the dried foods district where practically anything you can think of is dried and sold. Why do they eat dried food if fresh is available? Our local Hong Kong guide Fred tells us it is because the flavour of dried is better.
You can find costly items like sea cucumber (rich in collagen, good to skin, no cholesterol), abalone, fish maw, bird’s nest, deer horn, deer leg sinew, and conpoy all sold in kati instead of kilos or grams. One kati is the traditional way of measuring things. There are approximately 600 grams or one third of an ounce to one kati.
Meats such as duck kidneys, whole quail, tendons wrapped as little bundles and even split and splayed lizards on sticks are sold. On the street, every corner or space is used and we see whole fish or fish maw drying, even on construction sites.
At Kau Kee Noodle on Gough Street, we stop for a lunch of beef brisket noodles, a local speciality. We watch as a bride in her wedding dress and a jacket comes in with her new husband for a fix of noodles. We share a table with a solo diner and one graciously moves to another table to allow our group to sit down.
The beef brisket is deliciously soft, cooked for hours. We try it with rice noodles as well as flat noodles and you can also add in some chilli sauce. I choose Iced Horlicks to wash it down with, which is sweet and harks back to my childhood.
As we’re leaving, a queue has formed outside and a couple of people chide our large group for taking so long to leave. We have a few minutes to shop and I make some purchases at Homeless, a home wares store with a fascinating range of items including a white sheep rocking horse. I also venture down to Petit Bazaar which has an adorable selection of mostly French children’s items.
We take a quick stop in Lock Cha Tea House where they hold complimentary tea appreciation and tea ceremony classes as part of a Hong Kong Tourism initiative. Classes take about an hour and need to be booked ahead of time.
I had all intentions to only take a mouthful of everything at Sun Yuen restaurant at Queen’s Road Central, but once I tried the honeyed char siu, crunchy skinned roasted pork and the glossy soya sauce chicken, all good intentions evaporated. Here for over 30 years, they still use an abacus to calculate your bill.
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