Photo by Conveyor belt sushi/Flickr CC
While working on two Chinese cookbooks last year, first in Shanghai and later in Beijing, I flirted with the idea of omitting dishes with shark fin in them. The response from diners and collaborators was a resounding no. I asked people in both cities if shark fin could be removed from the Chinese fine dining experience. Nearly everyone I spoke to said something like this: "It is expected."
I was reminded of this while reading Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan's article, "Shark Fin and Memory in Singapore," last week. I'm also reminded of it every time I eat in an expensive Chinese restaurant. There are certain pages in menus, usually the first ones, people like me skip over.
"If you are going to eat rarified Chinese food," goes the conventional wisdom, "one must eat at least one course of shark fin." This is especially true for fine dining occasions, wedding banquets, and high profile business meetings. There is abalone too, and bird's nest of course, but the showstopper is usually a gooey soup awash in the threads of fin from carnivorous fishes.
There are parallels in Western cuisine. Diners are willing to accept the implicit cruelty that comes along with a creamy disc of fat made from the liver of a force-fed goose or duck. Foie gras has that unmistakable heft of luxury, and by most accounts (mine included) it can be unspeakably delicious.
In the Momofuku cookbook, David Chang sums up the foie gras course, but he might as well be speaking about shark fin in Chinese restaurants around the globe. "We wanted to be taken seriously; we wanted our customers to feel like they were getting some luxury for the coin they were dropping on dinner. All those wants pointed in one direction: we needed to serve a foie gras course."
But here's the difference between foie gras, or o-toro cut from the fatty belly of vanishing blue fin tuna, or white truffles, or the ortolan, an endangered bird that is a hallmark of traditional French haute cuisine. All of those things are valued for their taste, and are precious because of it.
But the dried fin of a large shark, after it has been skinned and soaked and the collagen has been separated and steamed and stewed in a process that can take upwards of 24 hours, tastes like almost nothing at all.
Trust me. While working as a food critic in Shanghai, I tried shark fin right out of the steamer, before it had reached the rich stock it is customarily served in. I tried it out of a can, and deep-fried like tempura. What did I taste? A barely detectable fishiness, wrapped in rubbery nothingness. When it reaches the table shark fin soup is quite delicious, but that's because it's cooked in a stock where the proportions of chicken and cured pork to water are nearly equal. That stock has the depth and savory richness of a great Thanksgiving gravy. Anything would taste good in it (see: Stove Top Stuffing).
Image Courtesy of Jarrett Wrisley
Many gastronomes argue that the gelatin of the fin (during slow cooking the collagen is converted to gelatin, like all connective tissues) thickens the soup. It does, slightly. But so does cornstarch, which makes its way into some very expensive bowls of the stuff. As one Cantonese chef in Singapore explained: "Everyone uses cornstarch in their shark fin--everyone. Customers expect it to stick to the spoon." But because the margins on this dish are so high, very few Chinese chefs will speak out on the issue on the record. And very few, in my personal experience, eat it.
There are of course the ethical and environmental concerns that come with eating shark fin, but those aren't stopping millions from buying it. If you visit a wholesale seafood market in Shanghai or Hong Kong or Bangkok, you'll get a sense of how many sharks slowly sink to the bottom of the sea, bleeding to death over a period of days or weeks.
The shelves of shops are lined with tens of thousands of fins--from the size of a playing card to whale shark fins that look like vast, cartilaginous kites. They are filed there by size, quality and price, like parchment colored libraries cataloging Asia's new-found excess.
And excess is the real reason that tens of millions sharks are being harvested annually. Fins were probably first served to the Imperial Court during the Ming Dynasty in China (1368-1644 AD), and later to only the wealthiest class. Today a bowl, which can range from $10 on the streets of Bangkok's Chinatown to several hundred in Hong Kong, Beijing or Taipei, is well within the reach of many Chinese consumers.
According to leading researcher and conservationist Shelley Clarke, China's wealth stands in the way of the shark's survival. "Sharks are caught by fisheries around the world, but the tradition in Chinese communities of eating shark fin in combination with the increasing purchasing power of Chinese consumers means that China, more than any other country, holds the fate of sharks in its hands. "
Traditionally, French gastronomes would cover their eyes in a black shroud when eating the Ortolan Bunting, which would have been fattened on figs and oats and drowned alive in Armagnac before eating. The shroud served to funnel the aromas of the roasted bird up into their nostrils, but it also hid their faces from the eyes of God, it is said, as they devoured this very rare and cruelly dispatched bird.
I think Chinese diners from Beijing to Bangkok might remove their own blinders of status and conceit, and come to terms with what they're actually eating: Really good chicken soup, with a few meaningless threads of gelatin.