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Shark Fin Soup's Decline And The Eternal Chinese Pursuit Of Success

From the Ming Dynasty to Hong Kong gangsters, shark fin was once the symbolic ingredient of Chinese people of wealth and status. But times and tastes are bound to change.

Dive right in (lookslikeamy)
Dive right in (lookslikeamy)
Wang Huanhuan

BEIJING - I ate shark fin once. Just after my husband and I got our marriage certificate, my father-in-law invited my parents to a celebration. The shark fin was served to each person in fine porcelain bowl decorated with a peony pattern and a gilt edging. The extravagance was compelling.

My husband and I both come from ordinary families. None of us had eaten shark fin before. I remember asking my father: "So was it good, the shark fin?" My father raised his eyebrows and said: "It's shark fin! How could it be bad!"

Gold and silver, bird's nest, and shark fin, these things represent the dream of utmost glittering wealth to Chinese people. You can see it sprinkled throughout Hong Kong cinema, where some lowlife hoodlum typically proclaims, "When I become a big boss one day, I'll gargle with shark fin!" Other films also make a point of noting the obsession with the delicacy: InThe Chinese Feast, we hear that: "All successful people love to eat shark fin."

My father has watched plenty of these films, and he too used to say: "When I get rich, I'll eat rice mixed with shark fin!"

The association of "success' and "shark fin" began in the Ming Dynasty and flourished in the later Qing Dynasty. In several Chinese literary classics including The Notes of Wang Rang Qing and The Golden Lotus, not only is shark fin considered as the absolute gourmet treat, but also as a must offering of the well-to-do, as its absence "dishonors the guest."

Yet, the secret truth is that shark fin alone has no taste at all. It needs many other ingredients to be cooked with. Even if it does have a particular texture in the mouth, to put it plainly, it's just collagen which can be also found in such foods as fish skin, sea cucumber, squid, or pork tendons. These are all common, and far cheaper, ingredients in Chinese cuisine. Even white fungus, a common Chinese dessert, gives a similar taste. Nonetheless, for the Chinese gourmet, the esteem and the nobility of the shark fin remains indisputable.

The key to understanding this is threefold: it's hard to get, hard to keep, and hard to make.

Traditionally, catching the shark and removing its fin was a seriously dangerous occupation. Even though it's a lot easier with modern fishing equipment, it is still a costly form of fishing.

Moreover, it is a strenuous job to store it properly. Traditionally, it took as many as ten procedures before the fin was dried and stored in porcelain pots. It was so ritualized that the cook was required to worship the Buddha first.

Caution and lust

The process of cooking the famous dish requires just as much trouble. According to The Notes of Wang Rang Qing, which offers full details of how four mandarins were entertained with this delicacy, 160 pieces of shark fin were carefully chosen and prepared before being slowly braised in a stock prepared with ham, chicken and duck. It is described as "so delicious that nothing else can ever compare" and was marked as "an occasion for a renowned chef to demonstrate his virtuosity as well as setting the stage for celebrity lavishness' in the late Qing Dynasty.

In the description given by Eileen Chang, author of the famous novel "Lust, Caution" who offers some of the best portrayals of life in 1940s Shanghai before the arrival of the Communists, the debt-ridden remnant of a Shanghai family would struggle to come up with this pompous dish at a festive dinner just to save face.

This dish is so relished in all Chinese literature. Reading between the lines, it conveys the image of money, ingenuity, passion and enthusiasm. The shark fin is in essence a competition in taste for people of success.

Humans enjoy being infatuated with the troublesome and the extravagant. Were the white fungus also difficult to get, with a peculiar look and difficult to cook, it might also have become a rare commodity and share the disastrous man-made fate of the poor shark.

For Chinese people, the excitement of taste is not just on the tip of the tongue, but also floating in the heart. The more advanced the taste, the more inseparable the fun is from psychology. What a bowl of shark fin represents is elaboration in the mouth and ostentation on the table.

Nevertheless trends pass, people pursue the latest blip of bling-bling, falling behind fashion strikes fear in hearts. These days in China, the cutting-edge luxury foods are wine, truffles, Kobe steak, and caviar, as shown in Protégé, the 2007 Hong Kong gangster classic, where the drug dealer played by Andy Lau gulps down the black gold like ice-cream.

The pursuit of splendor, wealth, vanity and dazzle remains unchanged. Shark fin is still expensive, but it's no longer seen as special.

And beyond shark fin falling out of fashion, it now appears on fewer menus because of the questions raised from all directions about the wisdom of indulging in the delicacy: the environmentalists who want to save the sharks, the doctors who doubt the nutritional value of the fin and point out the traces of mercury it sometimes contains.

A few weeks ago, China's State Council announced that it plans to issue, within three years, a regulation that no more shark fin is to be served at official receptions. Although the shark fin is not the most expensive ingredient in cooking, nor is it the only environmentally unfriendly dish, what most people can't figure out is why it will take three years to churn out such document. Perhaps there are some old habits that never go out of style.

Read the original article in Chinese

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