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I had my very first bowl of shark's fin soup last week at Super Star Asian (see review). As a culinary indulgence, it wasn't worth the money; if I'm paying $46 for a bowl of soup, it had better come garnished with about $38 in small bills. But as a taste of history, it was worth every cent. Until the mid-1980s, shark fin -- along with abalone, sea cucumber and fish maw (the swim bladder of a large fish, washed and dried), which together make up the "four treasures of the sea" in traditional Chinese cuisine -- was rarely found outside of hyper-regionalized American and Canadian Chinese restaurants and the fanciest of mainland Chinese eateries. A regional delicacy of Canton and southern China, shark's fin soup was seen as a dish of conspicuous excess, one that carried with it uncomfortable connotations (at least in the Communist world) of elitism and snobbery, and was served more as a show of wealth and power than a purely epicurean delight. At weddings and feasts, celebrations and the conclusion of business deals, shark's fin soup was a once-in-a-lifetime indulgence. Like Petrossian caviar. Or truffles. Or blow.
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But then came those high-flying years of John DeLorean, George Jung and Flock of Seagulls. In the late '80s and early '90s, it seemed as though everything that had once been reserved for special occasions and Hollywood starlets was being eaten, drunk or snorted by pretty much everyone. If an item was rare, proscribed, illegal or expensive for no good reason, odds were good that your hairdresser, that waterhead working behind the counter at the record store or your mom would know where to get some.
Almost overnight, shark's fin soup went from delicate rumor to rough availability. And while neither it nor fish maw ever caught on the way cocaine and beluga did, after 1987 -- the year Beijing removed its official stamp of disapproval from the dish -- shark's fin soup became almost a staple at Chinese feasts and parties in every city large enough to boast its own Chinatown. In New York and Philadelphia, sharks' fins can be purchased dried and bagged at markets along Race Street and Canal. In Denver, it's available up and down Federal and Alameda.
To learn more, I called Gene Tang, my go-to guy for all things weird and Chinese. He was the man who got me to eat cold pickled pig's ear for the first time, the man who found me my first whole abalone at Ocean City. And when I asked him what he knew about shark's fin soup, he replied, "A lot. What do you want to know?"
I wanted to know where he went to get it (Vancouver) and what you could expect to pay for it ($40 to 60 a bowl for the real stuff, half that for the fake skate and ray-wing versions, double that in New York City) and when it was eaten by real people.
"Special occasions, mostly," he said. "Banquets. It's the kind of thing you have to call ahead for, order in advance." Tang then explained how the shark fin is properly prepared: The dry cartilage is soaked, cooked over low heat, washed, soaked again, boiled low with ginger and scallions to get out the fish smell, served traditionally in a powerful chicken broth (although I'm fairly sure that Super Star used a shiitake-mushroom broth) shot with rice wine and topped with shredded ham.
We discussed how the buying, selling and serving of shark fin isn't really illegal, just nasty -- like the importation of durian fruit or serving ortolans. Since a lot of the fins that make their way to market are taken in a process called "finning" -- in which a shark is caught (often accidentally by fisherman going out for tuna or sword) and butchered alive, its fin cut off with a knife, then the rest of the body thrown back into the sea where the shark either bleeds to death or drowns -- there are plenty of people who won't eat shark's fin soup. For years, there have been calls for a global ban on the practice, but because of the recent explosion in demand for shark fin, finning (which has actually been banned in many countries, just not all of them) has increased dramatically.
I'm with the fish on this one. It's not that I consider killing fish for food to be wrong -- or that killing any animal for its tastiest parts is wrong. What bothers me is the waste. Fishermen throw the finned shark carcasses away because the fins are the most valuable part and they can fit more fins on the boat if the holds aren't all jammed up with shark carcasses. But if you kill something for food, you should use it all. That's the rule. Anything less than that and you're showing disrespect for the critter that's filling your belly. Besides, shark meat is tasty.
Anyway, I've had my shark's fin soup, and I've had it done extraordinarily well. So I don't think I'll be ordering it again anytime soon. Fish maw, on the other hand Since I've now been lucky enough to taste three treasures of the sea, I think it's only right to round things off by sampling all four. I'll let you know how it goes the next time I take a spin through Super Star.