The story goes that shark fin soup was created by an emperor in the Sung Dynasty (AD 968) who wanted to show how powerful, wealthy and generous he was to his banquet guests. Serving the expensive dish came to be seen as a sign of respect.
“The Big 4”
The dish became a popular delicacy and is now known for being part of what is known as the Big 4 – a set of dishes representing different things in Chinese culture such as prosperity and health at a traditional dinner banquet. Often reserved for special occasions like weddings, the Big 4 consists of:
- Abalone [bào]
- Sea cucumber [shēn]
- Shark fin [chì]
- Fish maw [dǔ]
Shark fin as a symbol of status & face
Like many dishes in traditional cultures, shark fin is served as a symbol of class and wealth. Shark fin – like a brand name car or bag – is known as a “conspicuous consumption” product, meaning that it is served as a public display of social status.
Traditionally, the groom’s side of the family pays for the wedding banquet and folklore used to say that “a bride marrying into a family without shark fin soup on the table, is marry into a poor family.” Although we now know that is simply not true, this dish now has become an ingrained tradition of status, “face” and respect. Much like how one may expect turkey at Thanksgiving dinner, banquet guests may expect shark fin at the wedding table.
Shark fin as an act of generosity
In Chinese culture, there is a strong virtue of “sharing your fortune” with others. Many elders (our parents and grandparents) who emigrated out of their home country did it to build a future for their children. Often times, these elder struggled with poverty and segregation and serving shark fin at their children’s or grandchildren’s banquet is their way of saying, “look how hard I have worked my whole life. Now I can finally afford these expensive dishes and I want to share it with you all – my family, my friends.”
A value we are proud of at Shark Truth, we remind folks that we can showcase our generosity through other means, like giving a donation to nonprofits as wedding favours!
Fish wing soup?
Using expensive products to display your social status is a pervasive tradition in many cultures and shark fin is no exception to this cultural norm. Language is another reason why many consumers don’t know about the issue. In Chinese, shark fin is called Yu Chi which literally translates into English as “fish wing.”
In other words, it is only in recent shark conservation history that the general public is beginning to learn that the “fish wing” in Yu Chi is actually made of shark, and that sharks are in danger of becoming extinct.
How shark fin is served & what it’s made of
Shark fin soup is a thickened soup made with chicken and ham broth (and likely some MSG). It can be accompanied by shredded chicken and is either served in “threads” (torn up strands like thick vermicelli) or the fin can be served whole (more expensive). The price per bowl can range from $5 a bowl up to upwards of $2,000 a bowl depending on the type and style of shark fin served. But no matter how it is served, none of the soup’s flavour actually comes from shark fin. It is essentially symbolic.
A Culinary Art
There is also a rich tradition behind the preparation of the soup. The New Yorker Magazine interviewed Corey Lee, the former chef de cuisine at The French Laundry, who worked on a recipe for a faux shark-fin soup. The article talks about how the cooking of the soup is really a culinary art that was perfected over thousands of years. There is no question that shark fin itself has no nutritious or taste value. Nowadays, it is often said that shark fin is eaten for its texture, a texture that Corey Lee, the former chef de cuisine at the French Laundry in San Francisco has proved that can be replaced by other non-endangered seafood or fake shark fin.
Alternatives & change
With all the alternatives available for banquet hosts, we’re already beginning to see a shift in consumer behaviour and a desire to go Fin Free. To see how values are changing, watch Tides are Turning.