HONG KONG: No one spoke a word of English when we walked in to She Wong Lam, one of the last remaining snake butchers in Hong Kong. We are early. She Wong Lam serves soup normally from 11am till 4pm but Andrea Petrini had promised us a breakfast that starts with what he called a ‘snake cappuccino’.
We fill the small room which has been serving snake for more than 125 years. The air is heavy. Some say there is an intense smell of snake. If I had to be honest, I cannot really smell it. But there are cages with snakes at the entrance to the restaurant all marked as poisonous.
Before we sit at table, three men who are working inside the shop show us the snakes that are in the wooden boxes that fill the shop. One opens a few of these drawers to show us the different varieties of snake which will eventually be butchered at the back of the shop. There is every variety of snake and on every box there is a mark that they are poisonous.
Now, this is definitely not the place for anyone who is afraid of snakes. It is said that nearly one third of adult humans are believed to have an intense fear of snakes making it the second most common phobia in the world.
No one in the group seems to suffer from this phobia though there are some who are feeling a bit uneasy at the idea of eating snake including chefs Angelo Agliano and Valeria Piccini.
It took a third visit to Hong Kong to get me to eat the famous snake soup. How often have I asked chefs what is the weirdest thing they have eaten. Or is there something they don’t eat. More often than not, the answer is snake.
In this corner of the world, snake is a delicacy and one that has been eaten for thousands of years. But it is not something that westerners are accustomed to even though you would easily mix it for eel or even chicken if you are not told it is snake.
I was in Hong Kong for the four hands dinner of chef Angelo Agliano and Valeria Piccini at the Tosca di Angelo. A visit to a ‘snake processor’ was something that one of the curators of the event Andrea Petrini, together with Florent Bonnefoy, insisted was an experience that was necessary.
So for three days, the idea of waking up to a ‘special’ breakfast of snake cappuccino before a visit to the Wan Chai market was on the cards. And many in the group, including the chef Angelo Agliano who has been living in Hong Kong for some time were hoping his was just a joke.
It was now happening.
Angelo does not sit at the round table in the middle of the restaurant. Valeria gives the soup a try. Her first reaction is that blindfolded it could easily pass by as chicken. What disturbs her is not the texture of the meat but rather the soup’s texture which is very gelatinous. Her right hand men Guglielmo Chiarapini and Andrea Bertolino not only eat their portions, they also eat hers. On the other table, Angelo also gives the soup a try but leaves most of it there. He’s lived in Hong Kong but this is his first ‘encounter’ with snake soup.
Most at table are more adventurous eating the whole soup.
It takes at least four hours to cook snake soup to draw its full benefits. The soup at She Wong Lam contains five pieces of snakes. It is first steamed for two hours before getting sliced and added to broth. The result is a thick brownish soup which is mixed with mushrooms, chicken and herbs. The taste is mild, it has the sweetness of chicken broth but it is thicker. With the soup, they served us with dried lemongrass and wonton skins that are meant to be added to the soup.
At around 11am, the first person who is not in our group walks in. He sits in his usual table and asks us what we think of snake. “It is very healthy. I come here every day to eat snake soup in the morning during winter,” he said.
Outside, the temperature in Hong Kong is around 25C. But for the locals it is still winter season.
Andrea has the idea of getting some frozen snake for the four hands dinner. Ideas seem to come from no where. Snake ravioli, snake tortellini, a snake broth, it’s a joke that keeps on giving.
They say snake helps blood circulation. In our case, it certainly helped to create a bond between the group.