I learned about the health benefits of eating snake from my mother. ‘The whole body of a snake is beneficial,’ she would tell me when I was a kid. ‘Having weekly snake soup and a monthly snake gall bladder can strengthen the body, and improve qi and blood circulation. In the winter, it nourishes the lungs and relieves muscle tension. It’s also great nutrition for growing children.’
In China, snake is mainly eaten in the southern part of the country, with the earliest records of this food dating back to the Qin and Han dynasties (221 BC to 220 AD). In the 1950s and ’60s, snake parts could be purchased in markets in Hong Kong. People checked the quality of a snake’s gall bladder by running their hand up the belly from the tail. When they got to the gall bladder, if the snake reacted with a jerk, it indicated a healthy animal.
You won’t find snake in the city’s markets nowadays. Customers looking for snake dishes might find them in Cantonese restaurants, but the main source would be specialist eateries such as my Central restaurant, which has been around for nearly 130 years. On the menu are classics such as shredded snake with vegetables, snake belly with sea cucumber and fish maw, and deep-fried snake balls.
If prepared well, snake tastes great, and it is considered a winter delicacy thanks to its nutritional value. High in protein and low in cholesterol, snake contains glutamate and aspartic acid, which provide energy and maintain a healthy central nervous system. It has highly absorbable forms of calcium and magnesium, which help to prevent heart disease, rheumatism, osteoporosis and inflammation. And some people eat snake for its purported beautifying effects.
I constantly hear stories of overworked, lethargic office workers in Central feeling reborn after coming to my restaurant for regular meals of snake. The snake suppliers I work with are elderly now but invariably are strong and full of energy. My restaurant is flooded with customers during the cold season, a signal for me to replenish my body with the dark green tonic of fresh snake gall bladder mixed with a strong shot of snake wine. Throw one back, and I’m ready to take on the world.
Gigi Ng is the owner of snake specialist restaurant