Shark Fin Soup Tastes Like Nothing (But Chinese People Like Expensive Stuff)
by brian lam
My grandparents were in the restaurant business. They exposed me to a few things when it came to food. Perhaps my favorite, among countless chinese banquets or the endless supply of lobsters from their eateries, was a live king crab sashimi in a lime-ponzu sauce. The crab meat, still moving, was sweet; the limes were limes. I was 13 years old and all the other kids in school were eating burgers. Even when it wasn’t crab, eating with my grandparents was almost universally wonderful.*
Grandpa, S.Y., lived in Hong Kong. He was a physics teacher that turned into a shipping company manager when he married elsie and had to help run the business. He got to know the lay of the docks, and how to deal with corrupt cops and the criminal element well enough that his friends invited him to be one of the founders of Maxim restaurant group in Hong Kong, so he could handle paperwork, legal or not. The restaurant chain ran hundreds of eateries, from low end chinese street food to high end european and asian, and we ate at all of them.
The big Chinese banquets, for weddings or birthdays or holidays, were the best. There was always something with steak, something with lobster, something with shrimp, something with noodles. Sometimes fried noodles, sometimes soft. But the one part of the banquet meal that always felt ridiculous was shark fin soup.
I’m not a conservationist. And I’m not grossed out by eating strange creatures. It’s just that shark fin soup tastes like nothing and I’ve never liked it.
Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey taste tested it on camera and said the same. So did a reporter from Time, who found it, ” underwhelming.” The taste from the soup is actually derived from the broth. The fins contribute to the texture, which is similar to a gelatinous version of grapefruit pulp, unpopped. So why does the soup, made from the dorsal and pectoral fins of sharks, go for so much? David Lieberman from the OC weekly says its because “Asians prize texture as much as taste in their food.”
That’s one guess, but I don’t think that feels right in my experience. My experience being strictly limited to being quasi-Chinese and spending 34 years of being around Chinese people and eating a lot of Chinese food.
At those banquets, when the shark fin soup would arrive, I’d keep spinning the lazy susan without taking my bowl. Then, older relatives would ask me to not waste it. I’d ask why. I was told to eat it because it was expensive. Not by just a few relatives, but by a lot of people. That and “It’s good for you.”
The Time article by Paul Hilton has a great quote:
“It’s like champagne,” says Alvin Leung, owner of Bo Innovation, a two-Michelin-star Cantonese restaurant in Hong Kong. “You don’t open a bottle of Coke to celebrate. It’s a ritual.”
I think that’s fine. But Coke and Champagne taste incredible. Shark fin tastes like bullshit.
This is my take on the situation: I think a big part of it is that Chinese people just love expensive stuff. I don’t think any white writer can say that, so I just did. Chinese people like being fancy.
White reporters–go ahead and quote me on this so no one calls you a racist.
When I was a teen, my parents got divorced over a single breaking point–Dad needed to go back east to get a job and mom didn’t’ want to raise us in Hong Kong. She said it was because of the culture there, which was different from the New York and American culture she was raised in. But even before that, my brothers and I all knew that Hong Kong was different in that it was very much about status, and money and the national sport seemed to be shopping. I don’t know if it’s true but I heard a long time ago that Hong Kong had the most Rolls Royce cars per capita of any country. Even if it’s not true, I only have to look at my own father, who owns nearly a dozen exotic cars, including a pair of matching ones of the same model. “They’re different; one’s black and stick shift, one’s grey and automatic.” I’m not really judging him. He’s my father and I love him, even if he is always crashing his Ferrari because he’s too old to drive it properly and he should get a chauffeur before he kills someone.
The good news is that I think we live in an age where the people who are old enough to be buying the banquets have benefitted from globalization and the added perspective that hopefully informs them that there are more delicious and inexpensive animals we can kill and eat than sharks. Sharks are important for the health of our oceans and it’s a waste to cut off their fins and let them drown to death slowly at the bottom of the ocean, yeah, ok, whatever, not everyone can see far enough to care about that.
My theory is impossible to prove, offensive, flawed and I will get a lot of hate mail for it. I’m being culturally insensitive. Fine, fine, fine.
But shark fin soup tastes boring and it’s stupid to pay a hundred dollars for a pot of it. It’s a tradition that I wouldn’t mind cutting up and throwing to the bottom so it can die.
*Eating with the grandparents was wonderful, except for the time when cousin Derek threw up his snake soup that he was being forced to eat and made the mistake of throwing it up back into the bowl. Grandma made him eat it a second time.