The python has long had a dubious place in the popular imagination. The ability to swallow humans whole will do that to you (in fact, it actually happened just last month in Indonesia). Recently, however, I found myself in a bit of role reversal by eating a fellow member of the snake family in Central, and sampling specialty sea snake soup on the sacred island of Kudaka in Okinawa. (Sea snake, unsurprisingly, tastes like regular snake.) All of this seemed to call for an exploration of this topic in more detail, notwithstanding the end of the winter season, when snake (considered a “heaty” food in Chinese medicine) is traditionally consumed.
I had been to Ser Wong Fun several times before but, until recently, had tried the snake soup only and not any of the other snake specialties. This family-run restaurant dates back 125 years to Guangdong Province, where it opened as a purveyor of snake products for traditional Chinese medicine. After moving to Hong Kong, the fourth generation of the Ng family continues to operate the restaurant at its current spot under the Central Midlevels Escalator on Cochrane Street. It remains popular with both locals and tourists, primarily though not exclusively from other parts of Asia.
Not being well versed in Chinese medicine, I will focus on the gustatory aspects of snake eating rather than the potential medicinal benefits. In soup (HKD120 for a single portion), the snake is shredded into fine-textured threads, mixed with sliced mushrooms and fried dough and topped with thinly sliced lemon leaves to balance the salt, pepper, and ginger in thickened stock. It is a hearty concoction that is not particularly recognizable as snake but for a somewhat distinctively strong herbal aroma that rises from the bowl. It’s a warm, filling start to a meal that would certainly be sensible on a cold winter’s day, yet remains tasty any time of year.
The snake dishes with vegetables are where you can get a better sense of the quality of the snake meat itself. On my recent visits, I tried both the Fried Sliced Snake with Asparagus (HKD480) and the Fried Sliced Snake with Sliced Bamboo Shoot, Lotus Root, Water Chestnut and Celery (HKD480). In both dishes, the snake is de-boned, sliced into strips and wok-fried to an off white color; the only difference being the vegetable selection. The texture of the snake is firmer and chewier than fish, moister than chicken and overall quite nice off the wok. The combination with asparagus worked particularly well, as the asparagus and snake pieces were cut to a similar size for a nice balance of meat and vegetable. In either case, this snake is nothing to be afraid of and a tasty alternative lean meat to consume.
Another interesting snake dish on the menu is the Deep-Fried Sliced Snake (HKD450, pictured above). The snake is prepared on the bone and looks like very much like a plate of fried spare ribs. It is seasoned as cumin lamb might be at a local northern style Chinese restaurant with dominant flavors of garlic, chili, and cumin. The taste is thus quite good, though diners should be warned that, though the meat is tender, snake has many fine bones to avoid.
Beyond snake, Ser Wong Fun has a full menu and even diners who don’t want to eat the serpentine selections should be pleased with the traditional Cantonese food on offer. Not to be missed are Ser Wong Fun’s home-cured Chinese sausages, lap cheong, which are reason enough to come to visit. Two kinds of lap cheong are available: the standard sweet and savory variety made of pork and pork fat, and a darker colored sausage made with duck liver. I particularly like the Fried Duck Liver and Lean Pork Sausage with Kale (HKD140). The dish is served hot off the wok with a generous quantity of sausages sliced lengthwise mixed with crunchy Chinese kale that is flavorful enough to hold its own with the pungent cured meats. Preparation in the wok also serves to mellow the taste of the sausage itself for a good final balance.
The Claypot Rice with Lap Cheong (HKD280) is a preparation of rice and sausage steamed together in a single clay pot. The sausages rise to the top of the pot, leaving the steamed white rice below infused with their flavorful juices. It’s a delicious way to eat rice served with a sweet soy sauce for added taste. For those looking to try the traditional cured meat for the first time, the Fried Rice with Chinese Sausage, Lean Pork and Egg White (HKD75) is a good introduction.
In the end, Ser Wong Fun is a convenient place to appreciate this traditionally popular form of Chinese cuisine, one that is becoming increasingly rare in modern Hong Kong. Go to Ser Wong Fun for the novelty perhaps, but go back for the taste of the snake and the rest of the homemade cuisine that has satisfied Hongkongers for generations.