"The Chinese will eat anything that has four legs or two wings," said Lily Chang, my young guide from the Hong Kong Tourist Board, "except, of course, for the kitchen chair or a Boeing 747."
Lily was not fair to her fellows; the Chinese are not nearly so finicky as she claims. They will eat things with no legs, or 6, or 8, 10 or 12 legs, and they will not shrink from eating creatures with up to four wings like June bugs.
Sheltered from the colorful cuisine of the Hong Kong man in the street, foreign visitors wolf down the tame dim sum dainties at Maxim's, feeling that they are venturing to the limits of dangerous culinary adventure by using chopsticks.
Rambling the market stalls of Wing Lok Street with Lily I was discovering the truly catholic, and to a westerner, novel tastes of the Cantonese.
Lily was reminding me that the Chinese discovered the link between malnutrition and beriberi centuries before western science. When I recoiled at the idea of eating beetles, she cornered me.
"You like lobster," she asked, "nice broiled Maine lobster with mayonnaise?" When I nodded with enthusiasm, thinking she was inviting me to a feast, she pounced. "Ain't nothing but a bug," she said. "A great big bug with claws."
The British sneer at the French for eating delicious frog legs, she pointed out, and everybody except the Swedes sneer at Cajuns for eating freshwater crawfish, which outside of Louisiana are called mud bugs.
Chastened as a narrow-minded barbarian, I continued the ramble with a more open mind.
"You're lucky to be here at the beginning of winter," Lily said. "The best delicacies of the year happen to be a little oily, so we eat them only when the weather is cool."
Pausing in front of a shop with wicker baskets stacked to the ceiling, she asked the proprietor in Cantonese to lift a lid. With sinuous grace, a king cobra reared out of a tangle of writhing snakes and spread its hood in menace. The proprietor slapped it back into the squirming mass.
"Teeth pulled," he said to quiet my evident alarm.
At the dimly lit cafe next door, simply named in Cantonese the Snake Eat Shop, I sampled the cobra soup.
"The more poisonous the species, the better for your health," Lily assured me. "If the cobra does not cure you, we can try krait or viper."
But there was nothing wrong with me, I told her. I was sampling the dish only as a gourmet adventure.
"Aha," she exclaimed with delight. "Then you must have the steamed boneless rat snake with winter bamboo shoots served in a taro nest."
She was right. The cobra soup had too keen a bite -- perhaps the chef had shown too heavy a hand with the ginger as all chefs but a few of the champions are wont to do with cobra soup. But the rat snake casserole was exquisitely done, with just the right consistency to slither down the diner's throat. It went especially well with a rice wine poured from a bottle holding a couple of marinated lizards. It was a young white wine, of course, and well chilled to about 52 degrees as demanded by the breast meat of the plump young snake.
We reserved the red wine with toad marinade for a dried and flattened Peking duck from a standup counter farther down the street. Squashed, head and all, to the thickness and shape of a dinner plate, the duck had been coated in honey and hung in the wind to acquire a virtuous winter flavor. The pale red wine, almost a rose', was spiked with male silkworms and was an amusingly aggressive little vintage, but it went admirably with the somewhat oversalted duck. I am afraid I was overhasty in choosing the duck, for a few steps beyond were shish kebabs of rice birds, sparrow-size creatures that you eat bones and all with a sauce you had best not inquire about. I had a few later and found them far tastier than your average Coney Island hot dog with boring fast-food mustard.
Also I had to skip the delicious Chinese pigeons.
The Hong Kong gourmet does not just eat pigeon, by the way. He distinguishes between 40 breeds, orders the appropriate breed for the specific occasion, and commits no gaucherie like serving a snake bladder wine with a pouter.
I did try a pickled hairy crab, a snack that makes the pretzel taste like the concrete-baked twist of dough and salt it is. Unfortunately, I was so gorged by then I had to pass up the plate of owl, the knuckles of bear's paw from Mongolia, the frogs stewed in black-bean sauce, and the fried goose blood. Still something to look forward to.
When I complained that I had never tasted bird nest soup and saw none on the menu, the proprietor in the endearing Chinese manner rushed a waiter to the competition to borrow a bowl of the delicacy. For a dish that is nothing more than dried bird spit, it is indeed delicious.
The meal was the kind of table adventure you look for in vain at our average American fast-food shop. But it's just a matter of time till there is a Cobra McFang at McDonald's, for Hong Kong is full of fast-food shops and the American entrepreneur is not above packing local delicacies as shown by a row of canned snake soup with the familiar red and white American label in the supermarket.
And why not. Back in the real world, I dined copiously on a dazzling demonstration of French haute cuisine at the Regal Meridien, and a collation of venison dishes, salmon, caviar, roast duck, sorbets and souffle's at the Regent Hotel.
Something was missing. The great dishes I had once considered the height of western civilization seemed spineless. They lacked scale, had no tooth. To get right down to earth about it, there was no snake on the menu. How square.