By WANG YUKE
Pots clacked crisply out of collision, scoopers made grinding sound against frying pans, choppers heavily pounded on cutting board, and steamers bubbled up on stoves. Against the buzzing cacophony of the bustling kitchen, the chef was gingerly clutching a slender steel stick, piercing it through the supple a snake flesh, tearing, ripping and stretching the flesh with subtle force.
Ser Wong Fun, situated on Cochrane St in Hong Kong’s Central district, has been serving up snake soup for 128 years. But this traditional, and at one time glamorous, Chinese delicacy is edging toward extinction.
The extinction on the tip of the tongue is still under the radar, however, Ser Wong Fun, a family-run restaurant keep seeking ways to revive the endangered delicacy, hoping to carve a niche among the glitzy modernized gourmet landscape in Hong Kong.
Ser Wong Fun was the brainchild of Wu Guifen and founded in 1886 from the ground up in Sanhua Street in an ancient town of Guangdong province. It has been steeped in 128 years of history despite its ups and downs in the midst of its operation.
Now, Chen Shuyou, the third generation succeeding the family enterprise, is at the helm together with her daughter, Wu Cuibao. Chen Shuyou’s husband, Wu You, died not long before, which stroke a tremendous blow to his life-long beloved wife.
“Should not my daughter rallied me up and resolved to share the burden of the formidable family cause, I would badly crumble and not stick to it” Chen Shuyou said in a sad voice.
Keeping her father’s will in mind, at the thought of the glorious restaurant which was the testament to the earlier generation’s dedication, Wu Cuibao picked herself up while keeping her heart-broken mother company, taking up the business.
Snake soup’s medical value was the initial motivation of its emergence as opposed to its pleasant taste. People in Southern China firmly clung to the regimen that consuming snake did wonders in pumping energy into human’s body, improving blood circulation, dispelling excessive humidity accumulated in our body which might induce a string of diseases. Due to its wealth of health merits, snake has been widely recognized and cherished as a wholesome and an expensive medicine because of its scarcity and elusiveness.
Snakes aren’t just consumed in soup. There is also snake wine. Ser Wong Fun used to immerse snakes in potent white liquor and sell it as a remedy for arthritis. It often got piles of orders from guests who took great faith in Ser Wong Fun.
But the snake wine is relatively short-lived. The chef, Ren Jinsong, said that they do not offer it anymore.
He explained “Since their master passed away, the expertise in making snake wine slipped away altogether. Demands also shrink as youngsters today are inclined to shudder at the talk of snake. Plus, many people resort to pills when they get sick.”
The age-old venerable restaurant is still going strong to date, which is attributed to its preservation of the original taste of “snake soup”, its sophisticated mastery of the cooking techniques, its meticulous treatment to the ingredients and its earnest devotion to its clientele.
“Firstly, selecting the top-rate snakes is regarded as the overriding step as a determined prerequisite of the subsequent lengthy cooking steps. If the picked snakes are not up to the mustard, then everything that follows does not count” said Wu Cuibao assertively. She still vividly remembered her predecessors’ endeavor in seizing snakes and carrying forward the culinary tradition, a tale proudly told by her father.
As Wu Hanen, the second generation, took the reins of Ser Wong Fun, he went out of his way trekking across the Guang Xi Mountain only to capture the optimal living snakes for Guang Xing Lin Restaurant, a household name in Guangdong province then. It is the trustworthy and first-rate supply of snakes that Ser Wong Fun became permanent supplier of the heavy-weight restaurant at that time. An added bonus was that Wu Hanen stroke up a friendship with the cook master and, as a privilege, picked up the invaluable gastronomic secret of “snake soup”.
Fed up with the gloomy age fraught with tumultuous wars and dire poverty, Wu Hanen and his family run for their lives all the way to Hong Kong. Peddling the bubbling hot snake soup on a crude wooden handcart became his bread and butter. With its fame built up by word of mouth, Ser Wong Fun became the talk of the town. As things fell into places, Wu Hanen rent a plot and relocated its business to the more decent and secure place. It ushered in its heyday when thousands of bowls were sold out everyday.
Now Ser Wong Fun sources its snakes straight from Ser Wong Lam, the biggest distributor of snakes in Hong Kong. Ser Wong Lam is billed as a guru in rearing and catching snakes.
The chef introduced that snakes can be put into versatile use—skins for leather belt and jacket, gallbladders for medicine, snake oil for cosmetics and exterior used medicine. So snakes are dismantled and processed by Ser Wong Lam before distributing to different places for each purpose.
“What we get on hands are readily peeled snakes”, the chef said.
When asked what kind of snake is sought-after for making snake soup, the chef’s answer was “poisonous snake”.
Then the Chen Shuyou chimed in, “because the poisonous snakes contain little harmful cholesterol (which is an enemy to heart health). And poisonous snakes could add glow to our skin, redden our face, and help smooth wrinkles.”
According to the chef’s calculation, they bought in fifty kilograms of snakes every two days.
Haunted by the bare fact that people’s enthusiasm about snake soup is diluted, I asked the chef’s insight.
He offered three reasons. One was snakes are fetched at a premium today compared with much more affordable price in the past.
The other reason was “talking about eating snakes may send a shiver down the spines of today’s youngsters. They consider snakes fearsome and inedible.”
“Moreover, an avalanche of instant dietary supplement can reach the same health effects as snake soup does, and they are more conveniently available as well.”
Having laid out the bone-free snake meat in a utensil readily, neatly and elegantly, the chef explained, “In order to remain the snake flesh intact, in other words, to guarantee its wholeness and aesthetic, the peeled snake must be just cooked in boiled water before being boned.”
Then he moved on to the shredding stage. Shredding snake flesh, probably dismissed by outsiders as a mindless and unskilled job, is quite an art to people in the know.
“This process is ought to be done by hands. Neither knives nor scissors are acceptable. Only hands can make the flesh come into strips in various length and width, which we call as ‘the most natural presentation,” Wu Cuibao remarked.
Apart from the unraveled cooking legacy seamlessly passing down throughout the line, the benchmark of work ethics is also ingrained and observed.
Zero-tolerance to short-cut and artificial addictives is the bottom line. Chicken essence powder is nowhere near a substitute for natural seasoning such as ginger.
“Ginger should be processed in advance before it is put into use,” the chef said, “Traditionally, raw ginger is pickled and dowsed in salt water for solid two days so that its intrinsic pungency and disagreeable spiciness are dulled to the point where it will not offset the taste of the snake soup but rather stimulate the freshness of meaty snakes.”
When asked are there something special about the stew which was kept on stoves around the clock with its savory aroma drifting from the pot and permeating the whole kitchen, the chef said “A premium stew costs 16 solid hours. Every evening I put freshly-cooked stew off the stove, letting it sit and cool down, for tomorrow’s use.”
Wu called his grandfather’s story to mind when he touted for snake soup in the alley, “It was said that the richly heady fragrance pervaded far and wide, tantalizing people’s covetous appetite. Succumbing to the temptation, more and more people were lured to buy a bowl of such a street delicacy.”
“The stew plays a pivotal role in the making. Its rich layers of flavor stem from the combination of chopped chicken, pork ribs and ham with the essence drawn out to the full through the time-consuming simmering on stove” she continued.
Chen Pi, dried tangerine or orange peel, packs a punch in the end soup. Ser Wong Fun has never stopped fussing about the employment of this simple ingredient. A small piece of fifteen years’ vintage Chen Pi is priced at a premium.
Here comes the most critical final step: the chef threw chopped wood fungus, sliced mushroom and abalone into the readily-made stew and blended with Chen Pi in a fixed proportion. That is not an end. Ser Wong Fun is particular about thickening the soup, which adds the final touch. Insiders of Ser Wong Fun who have an intimate knowledge of it never let the expertise and recipe slip as which amounts to Wu’s family’s exclusive asset.
Despite on-the-go, Wu Cuibao nailed down to have a close conversation with me while we were sharing the snake soup.
Riding high all the way from 60s to early 90s, snake soup began to go downhill in mid-90s. Various contributors add up to its decayed popularity.
Wu’s answer to snake soup’s crisis shed a fresh light on pros and cons of intercultural communication and interdependent development on global level.
“The so-called ‘Japanized culture’ in the 80s gives way to Westernization in Hong Kong. Setting their eyes on Hong Kong’s diversified culture and markets, businessmen from every corner of the world make inroads into Hong Kong.”
International banks, heavyweight companies and start-up enterprises feel rosy about Hong Kong. As a critical financial center, commercial frontrunner and trading hub, Hong Kong is prized by international businessmen as a key gateway to break into other competent markets such as mainland China and as a conducive battlefield to flex their muscle and do speculation, Wu explained.
“The advent of multinational business brings along a blend of multinational gourmet culture. There are more than enough choices of foods and restaurants.” said Wu.
Non-Cantonese restaurants are omnipresent side by side with cha chaan teng (Hong Kong styled restaurant). And resent years have seen more exotic specialties mushrooming in an astonishing speed. Italian, Vietnamese, Thailand, Indian, African and Chinese regional restaurants are common sight.
Wu made a fleeting reference to Chuan cai, cuisines from Sichuan province of China. Sichuan Cuisine is singled out and specially named because it is hailed as one of the Eight Schools of Chinese Cuisine”, characteristic of spicy and pungent flavors.
“Even Si Chuan restaurants are easily spotted in Hong Kong now. It is operated in the form of private kitchen, which means merely two or three tables are laid out. As the deco is elaborate, the foods are prepared in no haste, and high privacy is maintained, such restaurant of its kind is business people’s favorite haunt.
The dainty, intimate and formal dining surrounding is perceived by business people as an ideal place for talking and bargaining and an ultimate propeller for signing deals. In this sense, restaurants offering Hong Kong traditional cuisines like us are overshadowed.
Alcohol is part and parcel of a business meal. Succession of wine toasting works its wonders in keep the business conversation flowing.
But Ser Wong Fun, by its very nature, entertains people by making food, rather than by catering to the wine culture. So, in Wu’s words, restaurants like Ser Wong Fun are apparently more of a place to dabble at Hong Kong’s old flavor than a place to go on a binge.
Suffice to say that alcohol nudges snake soup towards obsolescence to some extent.
Wu and her mom do their own business wholeheartedly, making no compromise on their food served on the table. Even negligible flaws in taste or blunders in preparing ingredients are not allowed.
As Wu attends to Ser Wong Fun’s external affairs like marketing, promoting and receiving media interviews, she has little time on hand to stay in the restaurant. So supervising job on the premises is surrendered to her mom.
“I admire my mom’s perseverance and efforts she pours into the restaurant,”Wu said emotionally, “Everyday she approaches customers to willingly listen to their feedbacks on our food. Then she rethinks the negative reviews in retrospect, followed by adjusting it attuned to our customers’ preference.”
That is why snake soup in Ser Wong Fun gets much more nods from both first-time eaters and devout patrons.
“Unlike many business people who are ambitious to make a fortune, my mom leads a very lean life. She spends little on herself and lives off on a low budget. Not expecting much, she simply hopes to make ends meet and supporting the family without my father.”
Seen from head to foot, the smiley and demure mom had no streak of a business person. Well-worn but still well-groomed dressing, soft-spoken voice and polite demeanor defined the owner of the household restaurant.
Life is not kind to Chen Shuyou, and even harsh after her husband (Gigi’s father) died. Her husband’s death was so traumatic and devastating to her.
“My mom has been in poor condition these years. She has diabetes, so she has to have regular and strictly controlled meals, or she could faint.” Wu said with remorse.
Drifting my eyes towards the weathered mom, I spotted a waitress was dishing up her meal. A meager portion of rice and a ration of winter melon soup made up her frugal diet.
Ser Wong Fun wins customers’ heart not by stunning them with dramatic and sensational presentation of its food, but by its deliciously homey fares and down-to-earth services.
A middle-aged attendant strode towards me casually with a towel slung over his shoulder, serving the legendary snake soup on our table, with a great courtesy.
Multiple unevenly shredded ingredients surfaced atop on the golden-brown soup, working up my appetite in an instant. The attendant reminded me of the blistering soup, suggesting me let it cool down. But I just could not wait to try with simply several careless blows.
It truly rocked! Apparent freshness and succulence delighted my palate, which was beyond description. Rich sweetness hit on the heels of the salty taste at the first bite. Thick but not heavy, the consistency of the soup was just right. Thickening the soup with a concoction of starchy flour and water was not an easy task because mismanagement could leave the soup’s texture destroyed by starchy lumps inside. But I caught no starchy dollops from the start to finish. Then I saw why the chef keeps the secret of this process to himself.
I scooped another spoonful of assorted ingredients and sent to my month. This time, the texture was still more complicated as crunchiness, chewiness, slipperiness, and softness all piled up. It was my first to eat snake and I literally took to it at once. It initial flavor very much resembles chicken, while followed by a revealing twist. A familiar fishy taste took over, filling up my mouth and lingering around my throat and tongue. The flesh was tight and chewy, but there was no need to worry about it straining your teeth. The chicken was so tender that it could flake off easily between my teeth. At the same bite, wood fungus, mushroom, abalones perfectly orchestrated with snake and chicken.
“Many other snake soup eateries add chopped asparagus, which indeed makes the texture better and the flavor fresher, but my mom rejected it. Experts in Chinese traditional medicine identify asparagus as mildly toxic that does more harm to people’s health than good. So we won’t serve foods that go astray from proved health philosophy.”
“Our snake soup may be short of the fancy and slick presentation as some arty sushi and glossy burger promoted in high-class restaurants,” Wu confessed, “But ours has more substance. Downing a bowl of steamy snake soup, you could feel stuffed and, meanwhile, fulfilled.”
Sure enough, while I was slurping my snake soup, a sense of warmth spilled all over my body, finally reaching out through my limbs to the fingers and toes. Given that my hands and feet remained uncomfortably chilly even in breezy weather, I was so surprised that such a simple soup could heat my body to block out the low temperature.
Surprise ensued. Wu told me it was better off sprinkling minced lemongrass. So I tried. Leafy freshness and inviting tanginess imparted another light flavor. It made my taste buds renewed and more sensitive so that the authentic taste of snake soup was more well-defined.
I was coaxed into loosely breaking apart sheets of paper-thin crisp pancake on top of the soup. Assumingly, the crispy pancake must be drenched and become soggy. But I turned out to be wrong. I was blown away by the retained crunchiness. Savory juice of the snake soup was soaked up, seeming to be condensed into the pancake. It never occurred to me that such an unlikely paring could wonderfully work.
While earthy and unflattering, such a bowl of comfort food did woo me.
Stuck in the highly modernized and ostentatious age where exquisite and fancy food takes over, snake soup is grappling with keeping its head above water. Fortunately, Ser Wong Fun, the forerunner of conserving the indigenous cuisine, manages to spare its phase-out. And those veteran practitioners and their well-kept know-how in making snake soup make for an integral and admirable culinary culture of Hong Kong.
Edit by GAOWEI LU