27 May 2009

Shark Fin Soup

Yesterday, for the second time in a weeks (it must be in season?), I was served shark fin soup at a business dinner.  This is local delicacy which is very famous and seems to be enjoyed by everybody.  The soup is made of shark fins, in a thick gelatinous broth that seems to be laden with MSG.  Cilantro, bean sprouts, and vinegar are served on the table and you doctor up your individual bowl of soup accordingly.  This is not a cheap dish.  Kind of like the Shanghai hairy crabs that I wrote about before, it is a delicacy and you pay for the privilege, about $100 for a small bowl at a nice restaurant.  The soup tastes OK.  In my opinion it is nothing spectacular.  The shark fins themselves are fibrous and kind of stringy; they don’t have much flavor.  No big deal.

Well, the problem is with the method uses to get shark fins.  I had heard from someone recently that they simply catch a shark, haul it on board, saw off the fins, and then dump it back overboard.  Without its fins, the shark can’t swim; it sinks to the bottom and dies.  I kind of doubted the veracity of this story.  Kind of like the one guy who insisted that in Hong Kong they sell babies to make soup.  That’s another post.  Anyway, this article from CNN (http://www.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/asiapcf/12/10/pip.shark.finning/index.html) confirms that the method used to gather shark fins is indeed pretty problematic:

To satiate the appetites of upwardly mobile Chinese, fishermen traverse all corners of the Earth's oceans in search of sharks or, more specifically, their fins. Because space is limited on fishing vessels and shark bodies are bulky and not considered as valuable, fishermen often catch the sharks, saw off their fins and toss the sharks back into the water. Without their fins, sharks cannot swim and they sink to the ocean floor, where they're picked at by other fish and left to die.

Upward of 100 million sharks are killed annually, almost entirely for their fins for shark fin soup.

So what to do?  As somebody’s guest at a meal (especially in China) it is rude to flat out refuse to eat something.  You have to at least try it.  Plus, one person orders for the whole table, and ordering shark fin soup is a way of showing respect for the guest by ordering a very expensive soup, and thus being a good and generous host.  Also, by the time that bowl of soup lands on the table, that shark (to put it harshly) has landed on the ocean floor.  So refusing to eat it at that moment has no effect other than to snub your hosts and let the soup go to waste.  So you might say, take a stand, lecture the table on why you think it’s problematic to kill an animal for one small part and then throw it overboard to starve at the bottom of the ocean.  Well, that’s easier said than done, especially in China, where politically correct American ideas about food politics and animal cruelty are simply not understood and too foreign to have any cultural relevance.  In a country where widespread famine killed tens of millions just a generation ago, it’s more like, aren’t we lucky to have enough to eat now, not how was that pig feeling when he was slaughtered.

At least when we kill cows and pigs and chickens we eat most of the animal.  Does that make it any better?  Maybe there’s really no distinction between eating a burger (which I don’t plan to give up anytime soon) and eating shark fin soup.  I’m sure most vegetarians would argue that it’s not much different.  Anyway, I haven’t yet decided my course of action for the next time I’m served shark fin soup, but I’m thinking about it.

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