Shark Fin and Memory in Singapore

Shark Fin Eggs.jpg

Photo by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

Most people have a madeleine in their lives--for my friend Willin, that would be scrambled eggs with shark's fin.

Willin, a lawyer turned chef who co-owns the upscale Wild Rocket in Singapore, first sampled the decadent dish as a child. In Singapore, the eggs threaded with the tiniest slivers of shark's fin are often served as part of a cold appetizer platter at traditional Chinese wedding banquets. Serving guests pricey shark's fin is the ultimate gastronomic status symbol for the Chinese, after all.

Unlike most Western scrambles, these eggs are firm, as opposed to fluffy, and are fried together with julienned carrots, bamboo shoots, scallions and, of course, shark's fin. They were a staple at banquets for years, but then Willin started to see it less and less.

Shark's fin is a controversial dish. Conservationists have been lobbying restaurants in recent years to stop serving it.

"I would say to my Mum, 'Remember when we would eat this scrambled eggs with shark's fin dish?' and she would be like, 'I don't know what you're talking about,'" he said. "I was beginning to wonder if it was a figment of my imagination."

Recently, however, he received some good news: a friend spotted the dish in an old Cantonese restaurant in Singapore's Tanjong Pagar neighborhood. Of course, we hopped in his car and headed over immediately.

Scrambled eggs with shark's fin have been on Mitzi Cantonese Restaurant's menu since the place opened in 1985, according to co-owner Hong Chew Fay. The dish used to be fairly popular but fewer customers are ordering it these days, he said in Mandarin. "I think some customers are more concerned with saving the sharks."

Shark's fin is a controversial dish. Conservationists have been lobbying restaurants in recent years to stop serving it, arguing that the fins are harvested through an inhumane practice known as "finning:" The fin is cut off and the shark is tossed back into the water where it is left to die.

When Disneyland opened in Hong Kong in 2005, the company announced that it would not serve shark's fin until it found a supplier that harvested humanely, and not from endangered species. In 2006, NBA star Yao Ming publicly pledged to give up eating shark's fin for conservation reasons.

At Mitzi, however, Hong said he keeps shark fin on the menu because customers still request it. And his eggs don't come cheap--the dish comes in three sizes, ranging in price from $21 to $35 U.S. (30 to 50 Singapore dollars).

"If people want to eat it then we definitely have to keep serving it," he said. "If people order it and I don't have it, how can I run a business like that?"

As for Willin and me, we remain conflicted about shark's fin. We don't actively seek it out, generally, but if it's placed before us, we'll eat it. (Willin also does not serve it in his restaurant.)

That night at Mitzi, however, we were happy with Hong's business philosophy, which gave us an opportunity to sample that dish once again.

And how were the eggs? A little salty, with a delightful mouth-feel combining springy eggs with crunchy bamboo shoots and carrots. The shark's fin was barely detectable. We had to pick through the eggs and vegetables and squint hard to spot the minute morsels of fin in our scramble.

I liked the dish perfectly fine but didn't think it was earth-shattering. Willin, on the other hand, was transported. Thoughts of happiness, childhood, and the thrill of rambunctious wedding feasts rushed back. The slow and thoughtful chewing was interrupted by Willin's repeated marveling over how long it had been. (Weeks later, he would still let out audible gasps whenever the topic of scrambled eggs with shark's fin came up.)

"It's comforting to know that it exists," Willin finally said. "It's still out there."

Mitzi Cantonese Restaurant 24 Murray Street, Singapore. Tel: 011-65-6222-0929

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Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan is a New York-based food and fashion writer. She is the author of the recently released A Tiger In The Kitchen, a food memoir about learning about her family in Singapore by cooking with them.

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