Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Labor Union Snake Feast

Last week we showed up at a rather unusual place - a commercial building in Kwun Tong in a makeshift dining hall - for a dinner event commonly known by locals as "labor union snake feast", something uniquely Hong Kong and with deep connection in our grassroot culture.

To understand how this tradition came about is almost like reading a chapter of modern Hong Kong history. Back in the 50's and 60's when the city was caught between the Nationalist-Communist rivalry still rampant in China, labor unions became a battlefield for political arm-wrestling and unfortunately, the breeding ground of much social unrest at that time. In order to garner support and boost their membership base, the rivaling leftist (pro-communist) and rightest (pro-nationalist) unions would each organize events, often in the name of some festive celebrations or entertainment and offered to their supporters for free or at very low cost, partly as membership perks and partly as a platform for whatever propaganda agenda they want to push. Sometimes it could be distribution of a free packet of rice in new year or special food for traditional Chinese celebrations, or a vegetarian meal at one of the Buddhist festivals, all of which were popular among low-income families, which made up most of the local population at that time. And Snake Feast, so named because most dishes were cooked with snake meat was also organized regularly during winter time, since Cantonese believe snake meat has a warming effect to one's body and considered a delicacy.

Of course, time has changed since then, but you may be surprised that such tradition of "food bribery" still exists to this date. We even coined the term "Ser Zai Beng Zhong" (蛇齋餅粽), which literally means "snake", "vegetarian meal", "mooncake" and "rice dumplings", used collectively to define any freebie being offered as propaganda by labor union activists and certain politicians. 

Enough of historical background. Well for us, we joined simply because we do love a bowl of snake soup or two and found the dinner offered great value for money, even as regular, full price-paying customers. In fact, we have done this for a few years already and have become a tradition of our own.

This time, we booked one table of 12 at the dinner organized by the most prominent leftist labor union and held in their office in West Kowloon, in the dining hall converted from their function rooms. They were one of our favorite organizers - strictly because of their food and nothing to do with their political stance - and they are the one with the deepest pocket - that explained why the venue is more spacious and comfortable and the food was of high quality and large portion.

The dinner usually followed a similar order as any other Chinese-style banquet, with only slight differences to accommodate the theme of "Snake Feast". We started with snake soup, brought to us in a few gigantic bowls. Scores of ingredients, including bamboo shoots, shiitake mushrooms, "wood ears" mushrooms, chicken and snake meats, were cut into fine threads, slow-boiled into a tasty soup base, then thicken with corn starch just before serving. It was distributed into small bowls at the table and the soup was to be eaten with crackers, lemon leaves and chrysanthemum flower petals for added aroma. I didn't taste much of the snake - well it tastes like chicken anyway so it doesn't really matter - but I love the overall flavors and sumptuous portion of meat inside the soup.

A few hot cooked dishes followed, including the deep-fried minced snake meat balls with dried mandarin peel and braised sea cucumber with goose feet and bok choy. Both were decent, served piping hot and with the right seasonings. Mutton stew is another common Cantonese winter dish and it was reheated on a tabletop gas stove in front of us, with tofu skin and plenty of vegetables added in to take up all the thick and tasty stew sauce. I wasn't that into mutton so I couldn't tell how good that was, but I certainly enjoyed the side vegetables with all the gamey meat flavors taken in.

In the middle of the meal, another soup was served and this time, it's a double-boiled soup with a whole black chicken, shredded snake meat and American ginseng. To appreciate this did require an acquired taste, especially if you are not used to the unique ginseng flavor, but the soup was said to be of great medicinal value with both ginseng and snake said to be good for your health.

Traditionally, snake dishes are always paired with another dish of poultry - either that be chicken or duck or goose, as snake and poultry symbolize "dragon" and "phoenix" respectively, with the pair of mythological creatures representing yin and yang for harmony. This evening, our poultry dish was a simple chicken with deep-fried crispy skin, a dish looked so easy yet so hard to master. It was surprisingly decent - given the chef need to make more than 10 of those in good consistency and served at the same time to every table. I also liked the steamed eel in black bean sauce, served in a large bamboo basket.

The meal almost always ended with sticky rice with Chinese sausages. It's not the best bowl I had - to start it's steamed rather than the much preferred stir-fried - but it came with good portion and enough for two bowls for each person.

We bought a couple of bottles to go with the snake dishes. While I thought the slightly sweet sake went down nice and smooth with the snake soup, the Taiwanese whisky went well with the richer dishes towards the end.

No desserts offered at the end of dinner this time, but some of us just headed up to a small shop next door for a traditional and equally delicious hot double-boiled milk custard. With winter not even officially started, I have the feeling that this won't be the only time we gathered for a snake feast this season - and I can't wait for the next one.

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