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.
It’s funny to call this return to cooking with fire a trend. If it is, it’s certainly the oldest trend in the book. And yet there is no arguing that the burning hearth has of late gripped the restaurant world, seeming to bestow the imprimatur of “serious chef” on anyone who embraces it. Over the past few years, live-fire cooking has gone from the province of backyard barbecuers and homesteader-type chefs (such as Russell Moore of Oakland’s Camino) to a national phenomenon. It’s become de rigueur among casino kitchens in Las Vegas and scene-y restaurants in Miami and Michelin-star hopefuls in Brooklyn. But no one’s saying it’s easy.
I became a huge fan of Snicket’s voice, and I started narrating my life in my head in a similar fashion. “She scrunched her nose after drinking a can of pop that was especially effervescent, a word here means giving off bubbles, or fizzy,” I thought when I was drinking a can of Sprite shortly after learning the word “effervescent,” a pretentious-sounding word that I almost never use. Or, “After running a mile in P.E. class, she felt like she was dying. She was only figuratively dying, as she was only exhausted from running and struggling to catch her breath, but after some rest, she will be fine. But she is also literally dying, as we are all moving closer to our deaths every moment.” You get the point.
You are late. The receptionist is judgmental. At the desk, you have to give your date of birth and home address. She repeats your information back to you in a robust voice.
As you give your date of birth, you realize that the last time you were here, you were about the age of the girl behind you in the queue. She has a small child in a pram who calls her “Mammy.” She is yakking on the phone. She must be about 16. You had not had sex when you were 16. You waited until you were out of the country and safely away.