Unexpectedly tasting shark fin soup in China

Food forms a big part of Chinese culture with tradition and meaning accompanying almost every step of a meal. Business dinners, weddings and other special occasions are almost always met with some form of exotic dish. Shark fin soup is a delicacy found in traditional Chinese cuisine and is made from the fins of various shark species. It is often eaten on very special occasions and is usually served either as a soup or stew.

Teaching chemistry at an international center in the Guangdong Province taught me a lot about the traditions and cultures of China. While it differed from north to south and province to province, one thing remained the same – the importance of honoring important guests. One evening, to celebrate our students passing their Cambridge examinations, a big dinner was organized for the international teachers and a few of the provincial education officials. Between baijiu shots toasting our health, wealth and prosperity and amidst endless delicious dishes being laid on the slowly rotating table, a pot of what looked like a creamy stew was laid down. The local teachers sitting next suggested I taste it and before I could respond, a spoonful was dished into my bowl. Politely, I tried to ask what it was but through broken English and poor translation, we established that it was a kind of fish soup. It was delicious. Only the very next day when talking to one of the other international teachers, did I realize that it wasn’t fish soup but rather shark fin soup.


A brief history of shark fin soup

Shark fin soup was traditionally eaten during the Ming and Qing dynasties. It was often served during formal banquets and was considered to be one of the eight treasured foods of the ocean. It was often prepared for Chinese emperors because not only was it rare and difficult to obtain but it also required a long and extravagant preparation process that often lasted for more than two days. Over time, it has risen in popularity as a delicacy in traditional Chinese cuisine and by the twentieth century, shark fin soup could be found in various Chinese restaurants all around the world.


Why is shark fin soup in such high demand?

The trade in shark fining doubled between 1985 and 2001 as consumption increased among the affluent middle class. As the personal wealth of many families increased, this in turn meant greater consumption of exotic foods at celebrations and important business deals, often as a way to impress guests. Shark fin soup was often served to indicate wealth and power but also as a way to show respect and appreciation of guests. It was, (and still is, in some instances), believed that eating shark fins can boost sexual potency, prevent heart disease, lower cholesterol, enhance skin quality and increase a person’s qi (inner energy).


Is it really that popular in Asian culture?

Shark fin is thought to be very difficult to acquire which is why it is so expensive. Serving this at special functions often displays the wealth of the host and their ability to serve such an expensive meal. It may also be served as a way to honor guests who are present. Being such an expensive dish, it would not just be served to anyone. Rather serving shark fin soup was is meant to convey just how important the present guests are. Shark fin soup is often associated with strengthening of the five main organs, namely the heart, liver, lungs, spleen and kidney. Many believe it to speed up healing and assist with a lack of appetite.


Why is there so much concern?

Shark fins are regularly harvested by a process known as shark fining in which only the fin of the shark is harvested and the body is discarded. The traditional beliefs and status associated with eating such a dish has often led to the over fishing of various shark species causing a threat to the world’s shark populations.

In recent times however, there has been a decline in the consumption of shark fin soup as many countries have become more aware of the ethical and environmental concerns around the harvesting of these fins.


Is imitation shark fin soup a real thing?

In recent times China has ordered government officials to stop selling shark fin soup as well as any other dishes made from endangered species. Increasing global awareness has led to a drop in their consumption by between 50 – 70%. This unfortunately has also led to many provinces in China selling artificial shark fins, soups and stews. Artificial shark fins are made with edible gelatinous substances that imitate the texture and qualities of actual shark fin. Originally it was thought that the imitation version of the soup originated on Temple Street in Hong Kong, way back in the 1950’s. Street vendors are thought to have collected the broken park of shark fins that were discarded by more popular Chinese establishments and prepared these in a soup form. The imitation dish was inexpensive but still tasty which made it popular among the poorer communities. Unfortunately these artificial shark fins have been said to contain dangerous amounts of substances such as cadmium and methyl-mercury.


What does shark fin soup taste like?

The meat from the shark fin itself is actually tasteless and much of the flavor of the dish comes from the soup or stew. Many people actually describe it as having a chewy gelatinous-like texture. The broth is often made from a host of different ingredients such as ginseng, chicken, mushrooms, quail eggs and so on, all of which impart a rich flavor to the dish. Despite not knowing what it is I was eating at the time, it really was a delicious dish.

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I'm Shalinee - a Geminian scientist who loves to travel, write, draw and eat chocolate. I've visited over twenty countries, published a Environmental Science encyclopaedia and somewhere along the way started a science communication company to help students and corporates translate that hard-to-read data generated in a lab. Other than that, I'm just searching for the magic still hidden in the world.

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