Snakes and bladders
Mak Tai-kwong deftly takes a snake from one of the many drawers of a large brown cupboard labelled with the warning, 'poisonous snake' in Chinese characters. He cuts into the reptile's abdomen then squeezes out a little black organ - its gall bladder.
He repeats the process on two more snakes before pricking the three sacs with a knife to release the contents. The liquid is then mixed with two types of liquor (including snake wine, which is made by soaking steamed snake meat in alcohol and a secret blend of Chinese herbs), and Mak stirs it before offering the greenish-black liquid to his middle-aged customer, who downs it in one go.
'I've been taking [snake bile] for over 10 years,' the man says. 'It makes me vigorous.'
The use of snakes in Chinese remedies and seasonal cuisine goes back thousands of years. However, the practice has come under fire in the past decade over concerns that the creatures are being hunted and devoured to extinction.
Such worries haven't dented the enthusiasm of old-timers such as Mak, who has worked at She Wong Lam (literally Snake King Lam), a fresh snake meat purveyor in Sheung Wan, since 1948.
'I've been taking it since I was in my 40s, and I'm healthy and still fit for work,' he says. 'It strengthens qi and improves blood circulation, clears phlegm and wind from your body, both of which are said to promote illness in Chinese medicine. It also balances the endocrine system, speeds up the metabolism and slows ageing.'
Snakes have long been used in Chinese medicine: the earliest record dates back to about AD100, when it was mentioned in Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, the Chinese book of agriculture and medicinal plants.
Various snakes and parts of the reptile are believed to be able to treat different diseases: the blood is used for rheumatic diseases, to soothe joint pains and speed up blood circulation and metabolism; male snake genitalia is said to be good for the kidneys and the male libido; while the meat itself is warming and high in protein and iron.
While snake is still used by many as a remedy, it is also eaten for its nourishing warmth and taste, especially during winter when the reptiles are at their fattest.
She Wong Lam's snake bisque, which is made with five species of snake, has helped attract many new customers, including tourists.
Shia Wong Hip, a fresh snake shop in Sham Shui Po, has gone a step further when it comes to making snake delicacies.
'I want to make tasty snake dishes [rather than just using them for medicine],' says Chau Ka-ling, who has been running her father's shop - which he opened in 1965 - for 10 years.
Chau still serves medicinal snake products. Snake bile, snake and turtle soup (which is good for skin allergies) and remedies such as snake-bile-soaked citrus peel and ginger (good for alleviating coughs, sore throats and dizziness) are available in her shop.
She dishes up a variety of snake dishes. Chunks of snake meat, for instance, are deep fried until golden brown and then sprinkled with pepper-spiced salt. Snake stomach is cooked with fish maw in a stew served in a clay pot.
For Shia Wong Hip's snake bisque, they use plenty of snake bones to make a milky white soup base, to which chicken and pork bones are added for fragrance. Thick slices of meat from five different species of snake, shredded chicken meat and cloud ear fungus are next added, resulting in a light broth with a crunchy bite.
The restaurant offers a snake banquet for 12 people which has to be ordered three days in advance. A variety of cooking methods are used and there are a number of non-snake dishes. The menu includes vegetables cooked in snake stock, deep-fried snake balls, snake skewers and snake fried with assorted vegetables, along with a complimentary bottle of snake gall bladder wine. The banquet is so popular that the restaurant is almost fully booked until January.
Chau's snake supply has changed in recent years following conservation measures adopted on the mainland.
'We mainly imported snakes from the mainland in the past. But after some species were listed as protected animals and China restricted the export [of reptiles], we now source from Malaysia and other East Asian countries,' Chau says. 'But it's not like we can buy whatever we want. We have to apply for licences - import licences and health certificates to show the snakes are safe for consumption - from the relevant departments of the countries we are importing from and Hong Kong's Agriculture Fisheries and Conservation Department. It's complicated.'
Other shops are also buying more snakes from countries such as Indonesia and Thailand, but it's hard to determine if these come from farms.
In Central, long-time snake outlet Ser Wong Fun continues to attract long queues. First opened as a snake medicine shop, Ser Wong Fun has developed over the years into an eatery famous for its homey comfort food and soups.
Gigi Ng is the fourth generation of her family in the business. She sells home-style dishes, including 14 or 15 made with snake. Although the snakes aren't killed on the premises, the dishes are made with fresh meat purchased from a local seller; other places use imported frozen meat.
Ser Wong Fun's snake bisque is as popular as those sold at She Wong Lam and Shia Wong Hip. It's made with snake, chicken and pork bones which are cooked down into a rich stock. Chunks of snake meat, shredded ham, abalone, dried citrus peel and ginger are added to season and add texture.
Other popular dishes include fried snake meat with assorted vegetables and snake meat steamed with egg white.
Although snake is a warming meat, its heat is mild and nourishing, as opposed to other yeet hay ingredients such as lamb and lychee, where over-consumption can cause pimples and coughs. Mak, Chau and Ng all say that snake is best eaten in the winter although it's available year-round.
'Snake is good for everybody,' Ng says. 'But we do not recommend those with a cold or who are pregnant to take it.' According to traditional Chinese medicine, if snake is eaten by a sick person, it traps the bacteria and delays recovery.
For expectant mothers, snake meat should be avoided as they are wild animals and there's a risk of parasites. Then there is the belief that what someone eats while pregnant will affect their baby, so a woman who eats the reptile might give birth to a child with scaly skin.