About a year ago, I decided to give up shark fin soup. It was not a momentous decision. It’s definitely nothing like giving up smoking or something that you regularly come in contact with in daily life. In fact, I’ve probably only had shark fin soup about a dozen times. But my choice to no longer consume it was an important decision and in this post, I’m going to write about shark fin soup and why all of us, particularly those of Chinese heritage, should give it up.
Shark fin soup is a Chinese delicacy. It’s a rich, golden, slightly gelatinous broth, usually made from chicken stock, prepared carefully over several hours. To this delicious broth is then added anything from shredded chicken to crab meat. And then finally, the soup gets its name from the addition of braised shark fin. Stewed over a long period of time in a complex cooking process, the fin features in the broth as broken pieces, like small transparent noodles. Its texture is smooth and gelatinous, but also a little firm and sometimes even crunchy.
Shark fin soup is expensive. A small bowl can set you back US$50 or more. This is because shark fin is a rare ingredient and the soup itself takes many hours of labour. For this reason, the soup is a regular feature in Chinese banquets and weddings. It’s a status symbol, a sign of wealth and the generosity of a host. I last ate it at my cousin’s wedding in Sydney nearly two years ago. It’s incredibly tasty with a rich flavour developed over many hours from reducing the chicken broth base.
But here’s the thing: while the soup is absolutely delicious, its flavour comes from the chicken stock and possibly from the ingredients you add to it, like mushroom pieces, tofu, shredded chicken or crab. The actual shark fin is tasteless. You could easily enjoy the soup without the shark fin or simply replace it with a substitute, like glass noodles. So really, the addition of shark fin serves no culinary purpose except to make the soup ridiculously expensive and a gastronomic status symbol.
Ceteris paribus, this would all be fine. People have long spent a lot of money for no good reason and in a free market, if you’re willing to spend the cash, you should get what you want. The problem however, is that the harvesting of shark fins is an environmentally unsustainable practice of animal cruelty. Demand for shark fin soup has resulted in the overfishing of sharks in waters throughout the world, reducing their numbers. Unlike fish, sharks breed very slowly. Sharks often reproduce in small numbers and certain species take many years before they reach reproductive age. All this means that sharks are relatively more susceptible to overfishing. Moreover, since shark meat is less demanded and valued, the practice of ‘shark finning’, where fishermen cut off the fins of live sharks and return their injured bodies to the sea where they inevitably die, is not uncommon. In this way, the consumption of shark fin soup is no longer simply a gastronomic status symbol. It is much more than that. Its consumption is a direct contribution towards the supporting of fishing practices that are both inhumane and unsustainable.
It’s for this reason that I have given up shark fin soup. And I’m not alone in doing so. Chinese around the world have been abandoning the delicacy too. In recent years, demand for shark fin soup has been declining, in part due to highly visible celebrity campaigns led by the likes of Jackie Chan and Yao Ming. A 2014 Guardian article reported that sales of shark fin have dramatically declined in China. This is great news and I can only hope that over time, shark fin soup no longer appears on the menus of Chinese restaurants around the world.
There will, of course, always be staunch opponents to this decline. Some will argue that shark fin soup is a Chinese delicacy, a traditional dish that people have enjoyed for hundreds of years. A campaign against consuming the soup would therefore equate to cultural discrimination. I disagree. Firstly, there are many problems with using the argument ‘but it’s traditional!’ as a defence to maintaining a practice that is so obviously unsustainable and cruel. But secondly, and more importantly, I’m not proposing that we ban the soup entirely. Shark fin soup is delicious. It just doesn’t need shark fin, which is bland anyway. Many Chinese restaurants now have a ‘mock’ shark fin soup alternative, where the fins are replaced with noodles or something similar. The core flavour, which comes from the chicken stock base, is still there, in all its deliciousness. So really, it’s very possible to have your cake – I mean soup – and eat it too.
Feature photo from The Georgia Straight.