Saturday, February 13, 2016

Snake Feast in the Cold

I certainly picked the best time for a traditional snake feast when I joined a group of foodies and wine connoisseurs to eat at a specialist restaurant in Kowloon in one of the coldest weeks in town on record.

I have had snake soup a few times already during the season but it didn't stop me from signing up for yet another snake feast when i saw the notice for the event from Slow Food Hong Kong - this time at the famous Shia Wong Hip Restaurant in Shum Shui Po. There were a handful of snake restaurants in the old district of Shum Shui Po in Kowloon, and Shia Wong Hip is the one I go quite regularly, for they are one of the few remaining licensed  establishments in town to sell live snakes, hence they keep a good supply of the freshest meat for their dishes.

I normally come here just for a bowl of snake soup and sticky rice at the shop downstairs for a simple meal, but this time, I am in for something more elaborate at the hideaway dining room upstairs through the narrow and dark staircase up the old (and somewhat shady) building, joining a few dozen others already gathered there for a timely winter treat. With snake being known to have warming effect to the body in Chinese medicine, there's no surprise that there's a long waiting line for snake soup, with temperature hovering around single digit for the good part of the week - how lucky we were having booked the table well in advance.

The dinner started promptly at 8pm with a full house front and back. We started with two large bowls of the traditional snake soup, shared among the 10 of us at the big round table. They are not the finest type I have tried, but it came with a good chunks of snake meat among scores of other ingredients in a thick soup base made of snake bones and chicken. It's delicious and most importantly of all, I felt warm almost immediately after finishing a few bowls of those.

A few more snake dishes were brought our way and they were all tasty. It's been a while since I last had the deep-fried bone-in snake chunks with chili and they were surprisingly meaty. I reckon they made good snacks to go with wines. They gave the stir-fried snake and ostrich meat slices with celery a poetic name of "Dragon and Phoenix" (for snake represents dragon and ostrich represents phoenix) and I like the overall texture combination. I personally would prefer the deep-fried minced snake meatballs a bit crunchier, but I still ended up eating half a dozen or so with the mayo dipping sauce.

The snake belly stew was another wonderful winter dish. The snake belly fillets (with the skin on) were cut into chunks were slow-cooked with a thick soy-sauce gravy with lotus root, several kinds of mushrooms and vegetables. It was hearty and I quite like the soft and slimy texture of the snake skin - almost like eel in a sense except it's more delicate.

We also had a few non-snake dishes to round up our meal, of which I was most impressed with the steamed chicken. It was all about control of timing and I thought it was done perfectly with juicy and succulent meat without being overcooked. I reckon most proper Cantonese restaurants can't do that as good.

We began our feast with a soup and ended with another one, this time a double-boiled chicken and cordyceps soup. The sight of several geckos in our soup may not be too pleasant to some, but they were said to have good medicinal value and the soup was actually quite tasty too, sending us away on a warm note.

Everyone's encouraged to bring their own wine to share with the group. I was struggling to choose the right one to pair with the snake dishes - at the end I brought with me some single-malt whisky thinking at least it would make good after-dinner drink in such cold weather. But after going through an amazing flight of wines, I was surprised that a few reds with good acidity actually went extremely well with the dishes, especially those richer ones like the stew or the deep-fried snake chunks. I especially liked the 1996 Hermitage La Chapelle and the trio of Piedmontese wines - 2 recent Barberesco vintages made in 2 entirely different styles, and a 1967 Barolo that was kept in excellent condition and pretty much well alive with tar, vegetal and a hint of paint thinner on the nose and a little dried cherry and mandarin peel on the palate. Tannins were well resolved already but I love the mouthfeel of this elegantly well-aged wine.

At the end of the meal, the shop owner Ling aka the Snake Queen dropped by to say hi to our group, and brought along with her two live snakes for show. For most of us it's the first time getting up close and personal with one - venomous fangs have been removed so it's not dangerous anymore. It was a fun experience handling one of these creatures.

When? January 26 2016
Where? Shia Wong Hip, 170 Apliu Street, Shum Shui Po, Kowloon, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Traditional Five-Snake Soup
Drinks (Partial List)
Champagne Charles Dufour Champagne Bulles de Comptoir # 3 Nouveau Souffle Extra Brut (disgorged July 2015)
2012 Domaine Gerard Raphet Bourgogne
2011 Castello di Verduno Barbaresco DOCG
2008 La Spinona Barbaresco DOCG Bricco Faset
2009 Domaine Benjamin Leroux Volnay Premier Cru "Les Mitans"
2009 Domaine Francois Lamarche Vosnee Romanee Premier Cru "Les Chaumes" 
2009 Domaine Louis Jadot Clos Vougeot Grand Cru
2005 Mollydooker "Enchanted Path" Shiraz-Cabernet
1996 Paul Jaboulet Aine Heritage La Chapelle
1996 Domaine Daniel Rion & Fils Nuit St Georges Premier Cru "Les Hauts Pruliers"
1990 Chateau les Ormes de Pez Saint-Estephe
1967 Francesco Rinaldi & Figli Barolo DOCG


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