Hong Kong Food: From Snakes to Ducks

"Snake soup?" I'm not sure who looked at me more quizzically when I asked where I could find some in Hong Kong - my dad or our local guide. That's not to say that our guide Victor hadn't eaten snake soup before. He had, but he had never been asked to take a visitor for a bowl before. Since it was just the 3 of us, and I persistently asked, Victor obliged, and on the final day in Hong Kong after all the temples, birds and flowers, we went for snake soup.

Snake soup has been around for thousands of years and is considered a Cantonese delicacy with many healing properties. There's a limited season and guess what season it was when I visited? Victor took us to his neighborhood, off the beaten tourist path, where we found a bustling street full of wall-to-wall storefronts. I immediately spotted the one we wanted. In a large, clear plexiglass box on the right side of the shop, slithered a collection of live snakes, unaware of their fate. On the sidewalk in front of them was a man scooping from a vat of steaming hot, homemade snake soup.

Six different snakes filled my soup. The snake is cooked and shredded, and of course, resembles chicken in look and taste, as many exotic animals tend to do. There's a gelatinous broth that's thicker than you're probably comfortable, but it was well-seasoned with mushrooms and lemongrass, or other herbs of your choosing. It's a close sibling to chicken noodle soup, and quite enjoyable. They say it plays "yang" to winter's cold "ying." 

Much of Chinese cooking boasts of healing properties as I further learned while walking down Des Voeux Road West in Sheung Wan, aka, Dried Seafood Street. Victor said he'd be returning to this market in a few days to stock up for the pending Chinese New Year, along with many other locals, who prepare an extensive meal to celebrate.

The smell of dried seafood permeates blocks and blocks, along with barrels and glass jars full of fish, vegetables and unidentifiable animals. 

Butchers worked in the middle of the streets with Chinese women angling for the best bones and meat for their stocks. I'm not sure if I was more afraid of the man with the big knife or the ladies with the sharp elbows.

Dried abalone is one of the prized purchases from the market and can run up to $1,000 per ounce. Other high end delicacies include fish stomach, sea cucumber and of course, our friend the snake. 

That night we got to experience much of what we saw in the market at a traditional Cantonese meal at Lung King Heen in the Four Seasons Hong Kong. Lung King Heen is the first Chinese restaurant in the world to be awarded a Michelin three-star rating. I do have to say that this meal was unlike any other. 

The meal had a predominant color palate of brown and a dominant savory flavor of umami. On initial glance and taste, some of the broths and reductions seemed simple, but upon further inspection, I realized they were so much more.

Take the bird's nest soup. At the market, we learned that this prized delicacy is made from the saliva of birds (no, that's not a typo) and again, has high medicinal benefits ranging from alleviating asthma to boosting the immune system and raising the libido. I can't vouch for all of that, but I can say the texture was reminiscent of the snake soup. It's a little thicker, but I wasn't expecting much from the broth, but it gave layers of depth, and the included fish maw (stomach) lent a wonderful chew and flavor. I can honestly say that I've never had anything like it both in texture and in taste. I'm not sure my dad needs another serving in his lifetime, though I think he was more perplexed than anything. I'd have a bite, shake my head, and then have another and another to try and figure out what was going on.

Lung King Heen Hong Kong

Braised abalone and sea cucumber didn't help clarify anything in the flavor department. It was a soft bite and again, a bit of a surprise sauce. There was some weight to it so that it didn't move side to side without a big push, but the taste was rich and deep. It just kept going, and going to places I had never been. It was a memorable meal, but for different reasons that I'll be reflecting on for a while.

Dim sum returned us to more mainstream eating. In fact, we went to Din Tai Fung, where I dined just last year in LA (review) and where I was also instructed to try one of their popular outposts in Hong Kong. Their location in Kowloon is large with many open rooms, but still had a wait, though not as long as in LA.

The soup dumplings delight as usual and even come with instructions on piercing and slurping them down. We had black truffle laced dumplings, along with a lightly sweet cold chicken and my only vegetable eaten all throughout Asia, morning glory, akin to spinach. I guess since not many vegetables are grown in Hong Kong, they don't serve a lot.

Though when I walked through the open markets, I saw many more greens, but they just didn't serve much in restaurants.

Chickens are plentiful - in just about any form, as well as fish, still swimming or freshly cut.

Meat hangs from open hooks on the street, and also by the foot, or hoof.

peking duck

What you really want is the duck. The whole duck. The Peking Duck.

Most nicer restaurants will require you to order the duck in advance. You don't just pluck the duck off the street and microwave it in a few minutes. It takes time and there's a finite amount of ducks. When you make a reservation, you also reserve the duck and it's presented table side and usually served in 2 courses. The waiter cut ours in front of us, gently slicing the thin, crispy skin off, leaving the meat for our next course.

One piece of skin was served on a small, nearly translucent pancake with several condiments from which to choose - each one better than the next - black garlic chili sauce, plum sauce, green papaya, yuzu, spring onion, pineapple, red chili and cucumber.

The next course is magically and quickly transformed into minced duck served in lettuce wraps. Perfectly spiced and balanced, it didn't disappoint, though in retrospect, we would have loved to have sampled a duck slice straight up, but alas, we'll have to wait until next time.

We ended our meal at the beautifully appointed two star Yan Toh Heen with a traditional Hong Kong dessert of an egg tart. The bright yellow pastries were delivered warm and had a much less creamy taste than you might expect. The light sweetness made it a perfect way to close out Hong Kong, and prepare us for our next stop of Vietnam.