Sitting down in this small Hong Kong restaurant, I assume that the white chest of drawers behind me are filled with tea leaves, herbs, and fungi. So I’m rather perturbed when my guide Cecilia Leung tells me that they are not filled with dried plant life – but live snakes.
If the owner were here, Cecilia says, he would happily bring one out for me to inspect. Indeed, the “snake king’s” talents are so famous that he is sometimes called out in the middle of the night to capture and relocate venemous specimens blocking public rights of way.
Luckily for me, the only serpent I see is skinned, sliced, and served up in a thick, gravy-like broth with pork, chicken, mushrooms, and lemon grass. The snake meat itself is greyish with a slightly pink blush – and what appear to be the imprint of its scales still marking its delicate surface.
Cecilia tells me that about half the people she brings on this tour are willing to overcome their aversion and eat the snake. Will I be one of them?
The rich fumes of the broth are undoubtedly appetising, but I let my spoon hover nervously over the edge of the bowl – not quite sure whether I dare to dig in. Intellectually, I know that snake meat is really no different from eating fish, or squid, or chicken. And yet my brain can’t quite seem to communicate that message to my mouth or to my stomach.
I’m in Hong Kong on a reporting assignment – and part of my mission is to understand the territory’s rich culinary history. But as a science journalist, I’m also interested in what experiences can tell me about the psychology of eating, including the somewhat arbitrary mental barriers that determine what we will and won’t eat – and the surprising benefits of overcoming those boundaries.
As I hesitate, Cecilia tells me that about half the people she brings on this tour are willing to overcome their aversion and eat the snake. Will I be one of them?
I first meet Cecilia and her sister Silvana at a bakery and café in the working-class district of Sham Shui Po. Together, they run Hong Kong Foodie Tours, and over breakfast they offer me a crash course in the history and culture of Hong Kong cuisine. “I hope you’ve got a big appetite,” Silvana asks me, before ordering me a huge pineapple bun, made from a sweet, airy dough and covered in a cracked yellow topping. It is served with a mug of steaming Hong Kong-style milk tea, made by repeatedly drawing water through a huge “stocking” filled with tea leaves, which helps release the tannins and the caffeine for a ‘smoother’ flavour, and mixed evaporated milk.
The Hong Kong government recently included the meal as part of the territory’s “intangible cultural heritage”, and it clearly betrays the influence of British colonialism and its status as one of the world’s most important ports. Along similar lines, the café’s menu also includes a “macaroni soup” and “Swiss wings” – chicken coated in a sticky brown liquid that looks suspiciously like chocolate, but which is really a sweet soy sauce. “Because it was a colonial city, we borrowed and adapted a lot of our foods from cultures,” Cecilia tells me. It is for the same reason that the locals will happily cover their traditional dim sum in Worcester sauce.
For lunch, we taste the city’s famous roast meats, dripping with a glaze that turns my rice gold in the bowl
We next stop for a bowl of wonton noodle soup, topped with shrimp roe. Many of the wonton restaurants came via mass migration from mainland China many years ago, Cecilia and Silvana tell me – but like those Western dishes, the locals have now made it their own. “These people, when they came here, they had no skills, they were not educated – but they could make food for a living,” explains Silvana. For lunch, we taste the city’s famous roast meats, dripping with a glaze that turns my rice gold in the bowl – with a few detours into the markets and dried seafood shops selling shark fins and fish bladders eaten at important banquets.
Many of the local foods are thought to have medicinal value, and along the way I stop off at a stall to buy a cup of kuding, or “bitter nail tea”. According to traditionalists, it is meant to disperse excess fire in the body, soothing the digestion, and sharpening the mind. I found its bitterness to be surprisingly invigorating – like a square of dark chocolate – though it is not always a hit with Cecilia’s tour groups. “You’re the first foreigner who’s ever told me that it’s refreshing!” she tells me.
My first real test comes a little later with a bowl of a black jelly called guilinggao, made from ground-up turtle shells, which is meant to reduce acne and improve circulation. I had been too nervous to try it on my first trip to Hong Kong, but like my cup of kuding, it is pleasingly bitter, and slides soothingly across the tongue and down the throat. As I leave, I notice an Uber Eats sign at their entrance, offering home delivery – a sign of the ways that even the most traditional foods are being incorporated into the modern lifestyle.
By the early afternoon, I’m already beginning to feel that I’ve at least caught a glimpse of the amazing fusion of culinary influences that have shaped Hong Kong’s diet today. And it seems to serve them well: with its emphasis on balance and moderation, the territory has one of the highest life expectancies in the world.
But I’m intrigued to hear how new expats, unused to living in such a rich melting pot of cultures, adapt to the choice. Do they all learn to take advantage of the foods on offer? Cecilia says that most people tend to fall to the two extremes: she even knows one couple where the wife will eat everything, and the husband will try nothing new.
By influencing the variety of our diet, that fear of new foods may damage our overall health and wellbeing
Looking into the scientific literature, I found that psychologists describe those two “food personalities” as neophilia and neophobia. Studies have shown that neophobics exhibit significant signs of stress when facing unfamiliar foods, including increased pulse, fast breathing, and increased skin conductance from sweating.
By influencing the variety of our diet, that fear of new foods may damage our overall health and wellbeing. Neophobics are more likely to be overweight, for instance, perhaps because they tend to opt for blander, more calorific foods. They also tend to show deficits in key nutrients, including proteins, monounsaturated fats, and minerals like magnesium.
Such preferences may partly be down to our genes. Food neophobes tend to be more sensitive to a particular chemical, phenylthiocarbamide, that gives many foods their bitter tastes (and which, in nature, may have been a way of judging a plant’s toxicity). Such variation may explain why I find the kuding, guilinggao and stir-fried bitter melon to be pleasantly refreshing, while other visitors claim that the flavours are over-powering to the point of being revolting.
But our food personalities may also be determined by a range of psychological factors. One study by Laith Al Shawaf, then at the University of Texas in Austin, found that food neophobic people seem to be more fearful of diseases and pests in general – suggesting it may be part of an overall heightened disgust response. An evolved fear of infection may be the reason that we are particularly suspicious of new types of meat, given that they may carry the greatest risk of food poisoning, he says.
Intriguingly, Al Shawaf found that food neophobia also seemed to correlate with self-reported disgust in other domains – including sex – and it even appeared to be related to the kinds of relationships they preferred. “Those who are more oriented toward short-term mating and casual sex tend to be more food neophilic than those who are more inclined toward monogamy and committed mating,” says Al Shawaf, who is now based at Bilkent University in Turkey. Al Shawaf therefore wonders if a tendency to try new foods may also be a way of demonstrating the fact that we have a robust immune system, capable of dealing with the potential pathogens that may come from eating new foods.
Whatever our current food personality, he thinks we can all learn to overcome our disgust response to some degree, through increased exposure to new tastes and textures. “There’s no reason to expect food neophobia to be set in stone,” he says. “It can change across the lifespan, from context to context, and as a function of mood and physiological state.” One study, from Phan Hong at the University of Wisconsin, found that adopting a deliberately attentive, mindful approach (akin to meditation) is best – apparently, the act of calmly observing and savouring the unfamiliar experience helps us to override the initial aversion.
I experience this myself, once we reach the snake soup restaurant at Tai Po Market in the New Territories. In England, we have been conditioned to fear snakes, and the sight of its scaly flesh swimming in a swampy, viscous broth, would have once been hard for me to stomach. But after my day’s whistle-stop tour through Hong Kong’s culinary highlights, I decide to take my first spoonful. Far from being a trial to eat, the soup felt like a perfect, warming comfort food, with the snake itself offering a subtle fishy flavour, offset by the citric bite of the lemongrass. The locals believe it can improve circulation and fend off illness.
By the time we’re finished, I’m burning to explore more of Hong Kong’s hotspots on my own
It’s our last stop before our final destination – a restaurant on the top floor of the Tai Po wet market. Cecilia tells me that fresh, lightly seasoned seafood is the pride of the region, and so we order a gently steamed fish in black bean sauce, deep fried squid balls, and glutinous rice with a fresh crab. The art is in the precision of the steaming, Cecilia tells me. “If you leave it for just one minute too long it becomes a bit too tough.” Since the Cantonese word for “fish” sounds similar to the word for “leftovers”, the dish is often eaten at New Year’s celebrations to signify abundance and prosperity, she tells me.
By the time we’re finished, I’m burning to explore more of Hong Kong’s hotspots on my own. Cecilia, who is a keen traveller herself, compares the process to learning a second language; it can take a while to adjust your mind to the new way of thinking, but once you have begun to absorb its vocabulary, there’s really no better way of getting to know a culture. “It’s really getting to the soul of who we are.”