Nothing is more warming than a bowl of steamy hot snake soup, or ser geng, on a cold (relatively speaking) winter’s day. Hong Kong’s obsession with this reptilian delicacy stems from its touted range of benefits. The traditional dietary therapy of Chinese medicine considers snake a neutral and non-abrasive ingredient that culls the cold in the body, aides recovery of bones and muscles, benefits dry skin and improves circulation. And yes, it is also an aphrodisiac.
The time-honoured recipe starts with snake meat and bones slowly simmered with black fungus, ginger, lemon herbs and spices, alongside chicken and pork chunks to balance out the gaminess of the snake. This creates a rich, fragrant and well-balanced broth with savoury, tender shreds of snake meat. A slurry is added to thicken the texture and gives ser geng its signature shine. For topping, shredded lemon leaf, crispy fried dough skins, white pepper and chrysanthemum petals add brightness and complexity.
The soup originated in China’s Guangdong province in the third century BCE. It began as a luxurious dish only accessible to the upper classes, but gained in popularity and became widespread across China. Today, fancier recipes may include expensive mushroom varieties and aged kam wah dried ham for extra flavour, but most versions are affordable.
Some snake shops sell snake meat as their main trade, and in these establishments you’ll find stacks of wooden drawers with slithering reptiles inside. Other restaurants serve snake soup alongside other Cantonese winter dishes like sticky rice cooked with cured meats such as lap cheong sausages, and claypot rice with exotic toppings including frog legs and eel.
Snake shops tend to be multi-generational family businesses because of the special training required to handle and process the snakes as well as culinary expertise for making the soup. With the older generation of snake chefs going into retirement, these original shops are slowly closing doors. Below are three shops of varying budgets where you can still experience this Cantonese flavour first-hand.
蛇王芬 Ser Wong Fun G/F, 30 Cochrane Street, Central
Ser Wong Fun tops many snake soup lists and is an old brand that has grown into a proper restaurant. The shop serves a full dinner menu and boasts quality ingredients, although some may say that the flavour is lacking. A bowl of snake soup here comes in at around HK$95.
蛇王二 She Wong Yee G/F, 24 Percival Street, Causeway Bay
Another old shop that is famous for its snake soup, She Wong Yee is known for not being stingy with the amount of ingredients used in each bowl. Their clear, sweet soup has a pure flavour that speaks of high-quality and only costs HK$68/bowl. This shop is also famous for other local dishes like the aforementioned lap cheong rice.
蛇王燊 Se Wong Sun G/F, Fortune Mansion, Cross Street, Wan Chai
Eating snake soup at Se Wong Sun is an experience. The shop front is miniature, with only four seats and a large cage showcasing live snakes just off busy Tai Yuen Street in Wan Chai. Once you order, though, it is revealed that the actual dining space extends to the opposite walk-up building’s rooftop. There, dining alfresco, large tables of local patrons enjoy no-frills steaming hot snake soup at just HK$46/bowl. They also serve a famous turtle soup at the same price, alongside an assortment of exotic claypot items.
For more on Hong Kong’s unique culinary traditions, read our guide to Hong Kong style barbecue or if you’d rather explore another country’s perspective read about how time and place has shaped Greek cuisine.