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Sharks and Their Fins

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Unusual Ingredients

Spring Volume: 2017 Issue: 24(1) pages: 23 to 27


Nowadays, rich and oily shark meat is popular where once their fins were. The fins are now banned in many places because some say they are becoming endangered. In the past among the Chinese, bowl after bowl of Shark’s Fin Soup was popular before and in the rule of Empress Cixi.

Now, in southern China and Taiwan, a single bowl of this soup at an honorific banquet such as a wedding can cost upwards of five thousand Taiwan dollars or its equivalent in Chinese Yuan, American dollars, or the local currency. Getting real shark’s fin soup is not a reality in many places because serving them is not allowed. At best one can get artificial shark’s fin in soup.

There are more than three hundred different species of sharks worldwide. Even with that number, their soups are no longer allowed in many cities, town, or hotels. Eating this soup is morally unacceptable because sharks are thought to be or becoming endangered species. Their fins when cut off, the rest of the shark returned from whence it came, dies shortly thereafter.

Scientists need an accurate picture of these reducing numbers, distribution, spawning grounds, migration routes, and how many may still be available. Some tell me they do not have that information but do know their availability is rapidly diminishing due to over-fining.

Rich and oily shark meat is becoming popular at Chinese meals while in the past, simply eating their fins was popular at special events. Bowl after bowl of this soup was a required dish at these high-end banquets and important business-deal-meals. The Chinese finalized many a deal with this soup on the table as it impressed all.

Now, thanks to the cooperation of people around the world, the consumption of shark meat may be increasing while the numbers of sharks solely caught for fining has decreased. Is this enough for their numbers to remain the same or better yet increase?

According to one estimate in a New Zealand English language Chinese food magazine, some two hundred million sharks are killed by commercial fishing fleets doing this fining. If lined up head to tail, these mutilated and deceased animals would go around the equator five times.

In ancient records, shark fins became popular and an honorific food long after they were low grade and consumed by common folk. That was during the reign of the Qing Emperor Chien Lung (1736 - 1795). Then, their soup became popular on palace and honorific menus. After that and the death of Empress Cixi, this soup gained greater popularity at high-class banquets.

Today, due to their extensive use in many dishes beside shark fin soup, particularly mako and thresher sharks and many other shark varieties are being fished out of existence. Now, their use and those lesser-valued hammerhead sharks are increasingly sold as shark steaks, stir-fried shark dishes, fish balls made with shark meat and shark fin bisque. Overall, the number of sharks swimming in open waters are decreasing.

At the beginning of the last century, Chinese emigrated and now live on every continent; and they are more affluent than ever before. Therefore, their fins were sought after for many special meals. Most are purchased and shipped to China and Taiwan, sold in large numbers in Singapore, Macao, and other countries with large Chinese populations, as well as in China and Taiwan. Fin consumption has grown steadily at more and more banquets and special events, their soup still a required dish. In Hong Kong, a few years back, more than seven million pounds of shark fins were consumed in one year.

We know of one restaurant in that city, the Sun Tung Luk Shark Fin Restaurant, that closed their doors, but not because of supply issues. They closed them because their customers felt it inappropriate to serve or eat shark fins. They later did reopen, changed them, changed their name, not their ownership, and changed their menu, too. Morality had impacted their bottom line, their customers did demand they stop using sharks fins. They no longer ordered these fins, and many did not eat at their restaurant because they were appalled about fining actually killing sharks.

This attitude grew and impacted Chinese restaurants in many cities and towns, at restaurant chains, and at all places serving shark’s fin soup. People demanded this and municipalities demanded they adhere to it. These places and many people did not want to be responsible for the precipitous decline of and eventual extinction of sharks.

Though this decline came into question, prices of shark fins continued to rise. There was a demand for artificial shark fins, and so fake fin prices rose and are now close to equal, some even higher than real shark fins. People still want to show off and so they order these soups with fake shark fins. They seem to continue to impress, too.

What fascinates is that few seem to mind the term ‘artificial’ on a menu. They still want these soups even if made with fake ones. These soups now cost almost as much as soups with real shark fins, seem to sell well, and their prices are almost as high and some are even higher than those made with the real thing.

People are unaware that sharks are very primitive animals, each having six to eight fins. The marketplace sorts them into three grades according to thickness and location on the shark but does not grade fake fins, to our knowledge.

The best shark’s fins are dried in the sun then softened before use. Dried shark fin is hard and tough needing repeated soaking and simmering. The fins need their scales removed before use.

Their flavor is almost non-existent. Fake or real, they need to be prepared adding the flavor of one or another special food, and they need to be cooked for a long time. A chef in Taiwan told us their meat can be fishy if it has a high concentration of urea. He did ask us if those who read this magazine know that when preparing shark’s fins they need to be cooked with a strong broth and other strong ingredients?

He said that Chinese know that shark’s fins are called sha yu or yu chi, and that chefs need to immediately put the fins on ice. And he went on to say that many chefs, he too,, now use shark meat for other purposes and he thinks this is good. Shark’s fin soup, for the Chinese, may be an honorific dish which he calls ‘an act of generosity’ but now he worries if his livelihood will soon disappear. He hopes not. Have you ever wondered which fin was most prized? He told us that the one on the center back called the ‘dorsal fin’ is the very best. He went on saying side fins were considered second best, tail fins the least valuable. A soup with a whole fin is the very best way to have this soup, and we have written about having this once; we did photograph it and it is shown again on this page from the meal where we had that.

He did tell us that there are hundreds of other ways to serve shark, such as in dumplings, stuffed into chicken wings, or used as a sweet ending a meal. Literature and life tell us that shark’s fins increase the cost of a meal by thousands of dollars depending upon quality and quantity. That means shark fin soup can be from ten dollars for a few strands of a fin to a few thousand dollars for one bowl with a whole shark fin in it.

In Canada’s Ontario Province years ago, we did visit a place called ‘Shark Fin City.’ They gave us a brochure that we share on this page, their Shark Fin Soup shown in a white crock. They did not serve us or anyone a taste.

In Taiwan, we did eat with the owner of the previously mentioned shark fin restaurant before it morphed into something else. He told us he was feeling the economic pinch, said many of his frequent customers did not even want to be seen in his place. At that time, he was ready to change the name of his restaurant and its menu; and later did.

Some hotels no longer serve shark’s fins in their restaurants, though a few still do. More often than not they serve artificial shark’s fin in dishes or just a few real fin pieces with crab meat or with abalone. Their managers tell us they only use imitation fins.

TCM practitioners tell us that real fins can cure diabetes, reduce indigestion, and benefit Qi in men and women, and decrease cancerous tumors, reduce pain from arthritis, and heal serious wounds faster than anything else they know of.

To those who ask: are there different kinds of shark fins, the answer is yes. Look in your local library for the book titled: Musings of a Chinese Gourmet by F. T. Chang. It has many pages of enthusiastic guidance for handling the fins of real sharks, how to cook them on a bamboo mat, serve them at extravagant banquets, prepare them properly, etc. It advises not to deal with shark meat, just enjoy those cartilaginous needles from the fins. When cooking shark’s fins, we read that they should be soft and chewy after simmering for two hours or more. That author suggests rinsing them many times, cutting them into small squares, freezing them for later use, etc. He says that when unavailable, to substitute slivered sturgeon skin in their place.

While most TCM practitioners we spoke to say the needles from shark fins cure many things, not every one of them believes there is enough reliable information to substantiate that. A few blatantly said they are ineffective while some theorize that they may inhibit angiogenesis and prevent blood vessel growth. Not all are in agreement.

There are folks with seafood allergies who do not eat any fins. Some say they do get a bad taste in their mouth, others complain of dizziness, constipation, low grade fever, yellowing of the eyes, etc. while others only complain of their cost.

Many who want to serve shark purchase a small shark so they get very small fins. One gal said she serves these small items with crab meat and eggs, and did so celebrating the birth of her first grandson. Another told us she served them at her husband’s sixtieth birthday party. One fellow said he heard they were served at a New Year’s Eve party his friend called ‘Around the Stove Feast.’ His wife did not attend. Another chap said shark fins are a wish for ‘surplus’ meaning ‘money’ in the days ahead; and he is for that but has yet to have any.

Here are a few classic shark recipes, and all can be made with artificial shark fins. There is also a shark lip recipe. Enjoy them all!

Shark's Fin Thick Soup
Ingredients:

5 ounces shark’s fins
4 ounces crab meat
2 Tablespoons corn oil
2 Tablespoons crab roe
1 egg
4 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and slivered
2 scallions
6 cups chicken stock
1 chicken bouillon cube
1 teaspoon granulated ginger
1 Tablespoon each cornstarch and water chestnut flour
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
dash of ground black pepper
1 Tablespoon Shao Xing wine

Preparation:

1. Boil shark’s fins for half an hour, then soak them overnight, rinse them, and discard any hard parts.
2. Heat a wok or large pot, add the oil,, the garlic, ginger, and onion and stir-fry one minute.
3. Beat roe and the egg, add them, the stock, bouillon cube, scallions, and all the seasonings, flours, sesame oil, the flours, and the wine and simmer until no longer cloudy. Then serve..

Vegetarian Sharks Fin Soup
Ingredients:

4 ounces fresh coriander
½ cup dried day lily buds, soaked until soft, drained, each cut in half, and dried with paper towels
1 cup vegetable oil
3 Tablespoons cornstarch, divided
2 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
2 cups chicken broth, divided
3 large Chinese black mushrooms, soaked for one hour, stems discarded, each slivered
2 ounces canned bamboo shoots, slivered
1 small carrot, peeled, then shredded
3 Tablespoons canned wheat gluten, shredded

Preparation:

1. Knot half the soaked day lily pieces.
2. Heat oil and deep fry the knotted day lilies until crisp. Then remove them from the oil and discard them, but reserve the oil.
3. Mix half the cornstarch with one tablespoon cold water and toss with the unused day lilies.
4. Reheat the oil and deep fry the day lilies with cornstarch until crisp, then drain on paper towels, and with a scissor, cut into one-inch pieces.
5. Put drained day lilies in a bowl with wine and half the broth and steam for ten minutes over boiling water, then steam the mushrooms and bamboos shoots for fifteen minutes over the boiling water; then remove them from the stock.
6. Mix day lily pieces, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, shredded carrot pieces, and the wheat gluten, toss with the remaining cornstarch, and boil in half cup of the broth until somewhat thickened.
7. Serve each diner a small bowl of broth with two or three tablespoons of the vegetables on the side.

Imitation Shark Fin Soup
Ingredients:

1 sea cucumber, soaked overnight until very soft, remove
and discard its intestines, thin slice it, and cut each slice
in half, then set this aside
3 Chinese black mushrooms, soaked an hour, stems
discarded, caps sliced
1 cooked chicken leg, bone discarded, slivered
½ cup fresh shrimp, veins and shells discarded, each cut
in small pieces, and blanched for one minute
2 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
4 Tablespoons vegetable oil, divided in half
10 slices fresh ginger, divided into two batches
4 scallions, angle-sliced, divided into two batches
1 heaping teaspoon chicken bouillon powder
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
5 cups chicken broth
1 cup shredded bok cai or Chinese cabbage
½ cup imitation shark fin, soaked for two hours, drained,
cut in one-inch pieces, and blanched for one minute
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with same amount of
cold water
1 Tablespoon Chinese black vinegar
1 Tablespoon Chinese sesame oil
2 sprigs cilantro, coarsely chopped

Preparation:

1. Prepare sea cucumber, mushrooms, chicken, and shrimp, toss them together, microwave them for four minutes, then set them aside after mixing with wine and cooled.
2. Heat wok or fry pan, add half the oil and stir-fry half the ginger and half the scallions for one minute, toss with the bouillon powder, sugar, and the broth, toss in the bok cai, and set aside. When cool, add the sea cucumber mixture.
3. Reheat wok or fry-pan, add the other half of the oil, ginger, and scallion pieces, and when this boils, add the sugar and the artificial sharks fin pieces, and toss for one minute.
4. Next, mix this with the sea cucumber mixture and the shark fin mixture and stir-fry for two minutes then add the cornstarch mixture and bring to the boil. Add the vinegar and the sesame oil, and when thickened, pour into a large pre-heated soup bowl, sprinkle with the cilantro, and serve.

Imitation or Real Shark Fin Dumplings
Ingredients:

20 dumpling wrappers
3 Tablespoons cooked belly pork, minced
3 Chinese black mushrooms, soaked for one hour, stems discarded, then minced
3 cooked chicken gizzards, thick center skins, discarded, gizzards minced
3 Tablespoon shrimp, shells and veins removed and discarded, shrimp minced
3 Tablespoons imitation or real shark fins, minced
1 egg, separated
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil

Preparation:

1. Mix minced pork, mushrooms, gizzards, shrimp, and artificial shark fin pieces with the egg white.
2. Put one tablespoon in a dumpling wrapper, using one finger, take some yolk and wet the edge of the wrapper and pleat it sealed; repeat until all are filled and sealed. Then set them aside covered with a thin towel, for half an hour.
3. Place then not touching each other on a very lightly oiled steamer tray and steam for eight minutes, then serve.

Shark Fins, Meat, and Seafood Soup
Ingredients:

1/4 cup fish paste
1 Tablespoon soaked dried shrimp, minced
2 Tablespoons shark fins
1 Tablespoon chicken fat
2 Tablespoons minced scallions
2 Tablespoons minced carrots
2 Tablespoons minced Chinese black mushrooms
1 egg white
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 Tablespoon rice wine
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
6 cups chicken stock

Preparation:

1. Mix fish paste, minced soaked dried shrimp, shark’s fins, chicken fat, scallions, minced carrots and mushrooms, egg white, salt, sesame oil, and rice wine and roll into balls and roll them into the cornstarch.
2. Heat chicken stock, add the balls, and simmer them for five minutes; then serve.

Shark Fin Lips and Abalone
Ingredients:

1 cup shark fin lips, soaked until soft
2 canned abalone, sliced very thin, then cutting each
slice in half
½ pound lean pork, slivered
2 zucchini quartered the long way, then angle cut

Preparation:

1. Bring six cups of water to the boil, add the lips, abalone, and the pork simmer for one hour. Then add the zucchini and simmer an additional half an hour.
3. Next, let this cool about fifteen minutes, drain, and serve the liquid in individual soup bowls, the solids on the side.

Imitation or Real Shark Fins and Wings
Ingredients:

½ cup fresh real or prepared imitation shark fins
10 large double-bone chicken wings, bones removed
and discarded
2 slices fresh ginger, minced
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
3 Tablespoons cooked Yunnan ham, minced
1 thick slice cooked bamboo shoot, minced
½ cup chicken stock
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1 Tablespoon lard
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
1 Tablespoon water chestnut powder mixed with same
amount of cold water

Preparation:

1. Simmer shark fin in boiling water with ginger and sugar, then drain, and put them on a heat-proof plate.
2. Mix rest of shark fin with ham, minced bamboo shoots, soy sauce, wine, and lard and simmer for twenty minutes, then cool, and stuff into the chicken wings and put them around the outside of the plate.
3. Steam for fifteen minutes, drain liquid into a small pot, add the water chestnut powder mixture, bring to the boil stirring, and when thickened, pour over fins and wings, and serve.

Imitation Shark Fin, Corn, and Egg Whites
Ingredients:

1 cup imitation instant shark fins
½ cup crab meat, cartilage removed and discarded
1 scallion, diced, the white and green parts separated
3 Tablespoons bean sprouts, tails removed, each one
cut in half
½ cup cream-style corn
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
6 to 8 egg whites, beaten just until frothy
1 sprig fresh coriander, coarsely chopped, as garnish

Preparation:

1. Mix shark fin pieces with the crab meat and white of the scallion, bean sprouts, and the wine and set aside.
2. Heat wok or fry pan, add the oil, and stir-fry the shark fin pieces and the white of the scallions for one minute, then add the bean sprouts, creamed corn, and the rice wine.
2. Add the frothy egg whites and the rice wine and stir for one minute, then add the crab mixture and continue stirring until the egg whites start to set.
3. Put them into a pre-heated bowl, stir in half the coriander, and serve as the egg whites finishing setting, but before they get dry.

Imitation Shark Fin In Gourd
Ingredients:

2 large Chinese black mushrooms, soaked for an hour,
stems removed and discarded, then minced
1 Tablespoon shredded bonito, then ground
1 cup cooked belly pork, minced very fine
1/4 cup imitation shark fin, soaked for one hour, steamed
for ten minutes, drained, then minced
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
2 young Chinese green gourds, each cut into one-inch
slices, a spoonful of seeds removed from each of them
½ cup chicken broth

Preparation:

1. Mix minced mushrooms, ground bonito, and the minced belly pork.
2. Heat wok or fry pan, add the oil, then the mushroom mixture and stir-fry the mushroom mixture for three or four minutes, then remove from the heat and put one to two tablespoons of this on each slice of the gourd; then put about half that amount of the shark fin on top of it.
3. Put these slices on a heat-proof flat or almost flat platter, and steam for ten minutes, then serve.

                                                                                                                                                       
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