The year of the Water Dragon has begun. Chinese New Year is celebrated with family and friends, and with food. The way we eat, what we eat, and who we eat with are strong cultural characteristics. It’s over food that we bond. It’s a celebration of life beyond mere survival and basic necessities.
In Singapore, a Chinese new year tradition is the Lo Hei. Another dish often included in Chinese celebrations is shark fin soup. I think by now, even in Singapore which is a HUGE importer, many have heard about the increasing backlash against eating shark fin soup. More and more restaurants and grocery stores are taking it off their menus and shelves. More and more couples are taking it off their wedding banquets.
What’s the big deal?
Criticizing others, especially what and how they eat, is a touchy subject. When it’s seen as a cultural practice, boy, does it get bad. Even if it’s one Chinese telling another not to eat shark fin soup. And if it’s groups like PETA, cries of colonialism ring through the halls!
Eating is one of the basics of survival and infringing on someone’s expression of their most basic right touches off primal responses. We are constantly judged by what we eat and how we eat. Are we vegan, vegetarian, pescatorian, meat-eating? Sustainable, organic, farmed, etc etc. Really, aren’t we judged enough?
So why do I want to write about not eating shark fin?
Sharks are the top of the marine food chain and decimating their populations has far rippling effects on unbalancing the marine food web. In some parts of the world, 90% of the shark population is gone.
Being top predators, sharks are also rich in mercury. This is highly toxic. So much so that we advise pregnant women not to eat big fish (tuna etc) and many of us are removing old fillings.
And the way fins are harvested is unusually cruel and barbaric. Sharks are caught, fins are cut off, and the rest of the shark is thrown back into the water. A slow death of drowning or being devoured alive.
Shark fin is a non essential food. It’s just cartilage, with no nutritional value. The taste comes from the broth it is served in and the broth is either chicken- or beef-based. But people still somehow tout shark fin soup as tasty.
I’m not sure how or when it became so popular to serve shark fin. You can even find it in food courts in Singapore (not to disparage food courts but if it’s served here, why is it continued to be seen as a status food?). I did read somewhere that shark fin was a regional delicacy of southern China until the late 1980s and it became increasingly popular to serve at important functions due to alleged properties to boost sexual potency. Shark fin was ultra expensive and it became a sign of prosperity.
For this new year I hope that people will stop serving and eating shark fin soup. I hope that people will be aware of the choices they are making, rather than nonchalantly eating anything put in front of them. I’m Asian. I ate shark fin soup when I was younger. I didn’t question what I was eating. I knew it was called shark fin soup but I don’t think it ever registered that it was the fin of a shark and certainly not how it was harvested.
While dishes can be synonymous with a culture, isn’t culture defined by the people? The Chinese no longer bind women’s feet and I don’t think that’s diminished the cohesiveness and strength of their cultural identity one bit. When it’s wrong, it’s just wrong. Isn’t it?
If you knew how shark fins go from the shark in the ocean to the soup on your table, would you eat it?