Hong Kong is an amazing place. It’s completely different from mainland China—truly its own island with its own identity. Hong Kong is a storied former British Colony and was “handed back” to China in 2000. The words “Hong Kong” mean “fragrant harbor,” and what a beautiful harbor it is.
Flying into Hong Kong is one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. At ground level? Well, picture the street scene in Blade Runner, and you’ll get the idea. When I say that Hong Kong is dense, I’m talking neutron-star density (Google it). The streets are so packed during lunch and rush hours, you can barely avoid running into someone every other step. Look up and you’ll see a skyline that’s completely and totally filled with skyscrapers.
One thing I’ve noticed in my travels around our little planet is that some cultures consider virtually anything as potential food or medicine, and China tops the list. So on a recent trip to Hong Kong, my goal was to get off the beaten path and try some of the more exotically strange and forbidden dishes I’d heard about.
I like to think of Hong Kong as the true landing place of Noah’s Ark, given the variety and availability of some of the weirdest, even macabre food, and I’ve tried traditional haggis (don’t ask) in Scotland, and eaten fried bugs in Southeast Asia (surprisingly tasty). Trust me, I’ve ingested some of the most bizarre food products and medicinal ingredients on the planet.
Live crabs out of a vending machine? Hong Kong’s got it. Panda tea, made from panda poop (not kidding)? Get in line. Need a little fresh air? You can buy it in a can. Live turtle or lizard key rings? How many you need? My favorite thing was a tea made with tea leaves picked by the mouth of a virgin. WTF? I’m curious: do they actually certify the virginity of the leaf pickers, or is it just a marketing thing?
You can walk into medicine houses and buy crocodile heads, bear and tiger penises, cobra heads, scorpions, flying-squirrel feces, children’s urine, placenta, bones, even human semen. Jesus, I just puked in my mouth thinking about it. Anything that exists on this planet, you can find and buy in Hong Kong, and for all the stuff I just mentioned there exists a market.
For now, let’s forget about your local P.F. Chang’s or Chinatown Dim Sum. Drop all your preconceived notions and embrace the reality of Hong Kong. I know it all sounds repulsive, but you can’t get too rattled; it’s just a different view on the world, that’s all, and sometimes opening your mind can bring unexpected new pleasures. Within reason—I’ll skip the kids’ urine chaser with my Jamba Juice, thank you very much. Maybe just a little wheat grass to go.
So, heading out to get weird in Hong Kong, I decided to focus on soup. My goal was to eat as many strange and varied soups as I could find. After checking into my hotel, I hopped into a cab. My first observation was that my cabbie had four fucking phones mounted to his dash. Four! Imagine getting pulled over in the U.S. with a phone in each hand and the other two ringing. “Just gimme a sec, officer. These fuckers all got me on hold and Im ordering a Hambuger on Door Dash!”
I’d done my research prior to arriving in Hong Kong, and I had a good hit list for strange and varied soups. My first stop was a real crowd pleaser: snake soup. I arrived at Ser Wong Fun in Hong Kong’s central district. The place is a ripe 125 years old and is known for serving up everyone’s nightmare … unless you’re Harry Potter, or maybe a Klingon.
Snake soup is considered a good winter meal in China. The snake represents fire and so is considered a good way to heat the body and soul in the cold winter months. I ordered a Tsingtao Beer and sat waiting just a little nervous as to what might slither out of my bowl. When the soup landed in front of me, I was quite happy. It was a thick, meaty soup, not dominated by vegetables or other ingredients to obscure the snake. This was snake soup! The snake had been poached and grilled, then shredded, like pulled pork. I’ll have the pulled snake buffet, m’man! The soup had a chicken stock base, and the subtle use of mushrooms and scallions made it incredibly filling and satisfying.
I know what you’re thinking: “Tastes like chicken?” Yeah, it actually did. A bit gamey perhaps. To mask the gaminess they added tiny slivers of lime leaf. The leaf’s acidity and fragrance hid the initial smell and taste, and as I ate the soup, I kept saying to myself, “This is really not bad; I could eat this stuff often.”
As I reached the bottom of my bowl, I was happy. Shit, I just ate snake soup and liked it! Satisfied as all get out with my adventurousness, I started making fun of myself as I left the restaurant, acting out my next happy hour at the country club. “Ha ha ha, you know, Chad, I just ate snake soup in Hong Kong!” Mr. Sloate: Velveeta spill on aisle five!
Next stop: Fu Sing, one of the few remaining places in Hong Kong that still serve one of the most politically incorrect dishes on the planet: shark fin soup. When I told my driver where I wanted to go next, he perked up: “Oh, you like shark fin soup? Very expensive. Very expensive.”
It was definitely a high-end establishment, with white table cloth, tuxedo-clad waiters—showing off its edginess for serving its controversial dish. Shark fin as a food is considered taboo, and I understand why it’s frowned upon, but it’s there, and my attitude is, you have to try something at least once, and, well I wasn’t into Panda Poo Tea so fuck it?
Just inside the restaurant’s front door is a display case with shark fins in various stages of decay: aged, dried, fresh, and so on. As I sat down, a white napkin was placed on my lap and I was handed a menu. I turned to the page showing all the various types of shark fin available. I chose basic shark fin soup. When it arrived, I was surprised at the very small portion. The base reminded me of Egg Flower soup; it’s a gelatinous base made by mixing corn starch into the stock. Shark fin has no flavor; it’s cartilage, and it has to be cooked for a very, very long time to make it edible instead of like chewing thousand-year-old beef jerky. As I slurped my shark fin soup, I decided that it wasn’t that bad either. I could eat this frequently as well, but I didn’t see it as over-the-top tasty or anything; the wow factor was its main appeal.
After lunch at Fu Sing, I decided to head back to my hotel, The Conrad, located near downtown in an area called Pacific Place, to rest a bit. I decided I’d check out the hotel’s top-rated restaurant, the Golden Leaf, later that day, which serves up the most expensive soup on the planet: birds nest soup. Birds nest soup is exactly what the name says: an actual cooked down birds’ nest, but not the kind you’re picturing. This bird doesn’t use leaves and twigs to build its nest; it uses its saliva, similar to how bees produce wax to fill with honey. The bird is known as the Swiftlet, and the nests sell at up to $2,000 per pound.
I turned to the bird’s nest soup page on my menu and found a list of 20 different preparations. I decided on a basic chicken stock version and was positively giddy with excitement to see what was going to come out. When the bowl landed on my table, it was a beautiful golden color, a little gelatinous, similar to the shark fin soup. In the center was the cooked down nest with, in keeping with the restaurant’s name, a piece of gold leaf placed on top of the nest. With the beautiful bowl, the presentation, and the cost, the wow factor was definitely high, and as I pushed my spoon into the soup I could feel its density. The chicken stock was delicious, and the bird’s nest had disintegrated a bit, but it had a sweet flavor to it. Again, I thought, this isn’t bad. The price is insane ($80 a bowl), but it’s not bad.
Wrapping up my day, I smiled, satisfied that I’d achieved my goal of trying some of Hong Kong’s most unusual soups. I sat back in my chair and pulled out my phone, ready for more new things to try. Out of the blue something popped out—NO WAY! After today’s decidedly adventurous eating, what could be a better way to finish it off than a visit to the Agave Tequila and Comida Bar? Hong Kong Mexican! Now I’ve seen everything! Fuck it: nachos and a margarita? Just what the Chinese medicine man ordered!
If you enjoyed that story check out one I wrote on another soup in Vietnam Pho.