The roiling rhetoric that has washed over San Francisco since two California assemblymen introduced a bill banning the statewide sale and import of shark's fin has left many people in the city sputtering. AB-376 has brought out a host of accusations of animal cruelty, ecological devastation, and racism.
Most of the articles covering the horrific practice of shark-finning the bill is trying to prevent — in which fishing boats capture live sharks by the thousand, slice off their fins, then throw them back in the water to die — report that shark's fin is flavorless and chewy, which leaves many Westerners puzzled as well as traumatized. But there's a reason it is ubiquitous in Chinese wedding banquets and New Year's dinners: The pleasure one takes in eating shark's fin, like other delicacies such as sea cucumber, fish maw, and jellyfish, is in savoring its texture. To discuss only the flavors within a Chinese dish is like trying to sculpt something in 2-D.
The controversy is so compelling, and the bewilderment of many of my non-Chinese friends so complete, that it brought me to Great Eastern, one of Chinatown's best-known seafood restaurants, to eat something I have avoided for many years and hope to avoid for many more: a bowl of shark's fin and crab soup.
At Great Eastern, the soup can be ordered by the individual portion, though each costs $32. When I received my half-pint bowl, I could see tufts of crabmeat floating below the surface of a thick, clear brown broth, which seemed to have ripples frozen within it. When I raised up a spoonful to look, the ripples revealed themselves to be hundreds of delicately arced, transparent threads of cartilage, each the size of a pine needle.
Despite its price, the soup was no culinary masterpiece. The pork-and-chicken broth lacked complexity and depth, if not cornstarch. But the shark's fin was exquisite: Each filament was silky and jellied, but with a delicately chewy texture. As I sipped the soup, the filaments fluttered against every surface of my mouth, impossible to pinpoint, like walking through the mist halo of a sprinkler and trying to identify where each drop lands on your skin.
"Shark's fin takes an enormous amount of work to prepare," says Cecilia Chiang, at 92 still one of the country's most respected Chinese-American restaurateurs. When she ran the Mandarin, her San Francisco restaurant, she used to fly to Japan to carry back top-quality ingredients to serve as Shanghainese-style red-cooked shark's fin. The cooking process, she recounts, took more than a week. "You have to soak the shark's fin for five days to soften it, changing the water every day," she says. "Then you wrap it in pork caul fat and steam it for two days. If you steam it too long, the shark's fin turns to jelly, so you have to steam it for a while, let it cool, then steam it again. It takes a lot of skill to get the texture right." Cantonese shark's fin soup follows much the same procedure as the red-cooked version: a long soak, followed by several days of cooking, and finally a simmer in a flavorful stock that itself has taken days to prepare.
The reputation of shark's fin as a luxury ingredient dates back to the days when catching a live shark was an arduous experience, and its cartilage was a rare presence on the tables of the elite. Now, thanks in part to exploding demand, dried shark's fin, which can cost hundreds of dollars per pound, has become a lucrative trade. The Save Our Seas Foundation estimates that between 26 and 73 million sharks are finned every year — all over the world, including U.S. waters — and dozens of species are now on the verge of collapse. More than 90 percent of shark's fins caught are destined for China and Hong Kong, but American activists say that California is the second largest market in the country. What we do here has a small impact, but one that may well resonate across the ocean.
The many national anti-shark-finning laws that have been passed around the world, including the federal Shark Conservation Act that President Barack Obama signed into law on Jan. 4, are filled with loopholes and have had little effect on international trade. Assemblymen Paul Fong and Jared Huffman's bill, which resembles a Hawaii state law passed in April 2010, basically argues that since we can't control supply, we have to cut off demand.
That approach, state Sen. Leland Yee argued in response to AB-376, constituted an "unfair attack on Asian culture and cuisine." (He has since pulled back on his stance, arguing instead that a blanket ban outlaws fins from sharks caught for their meat or species whose status is not endangered.) Yee's comment has infuriated many Chinese-Americans who see no discrepancy between cultural heritage and environmental conservation.
One of them is Slanted Door owner Charles Phan, whose heritage is Vietnamese Chinese. The sponsors of the bill recruited Phan to join them at the initial press conference. Phan says that before the event, several chefs from prominent Cantonese restaurants called him, asking him not to appear. Why were they worried? "Because they didn't want to stop selling shark's fin," he says; it's unclear whether they were motivated by cultural or financial terms. Since the press conference, Phan says the response he has received from people in the industry has been 20-to-one positive. Yet when I asked him if he could point me to a local chef who'd given up serving shark's fin soup, he couldn't identify anyone, and I haven't found one yet.
Bill Wong, a member of the Asian Pacific American Ocean Harmony Alliance, a new group that coalesced during the period when Fong and Huffman were sounding out Asian Pacific American organizations to measure their support for a possible ban, points out that shark's fin may be part of Chinese cultural heritage, but it doesn't have a symbolic role like so many other Chinese foods. Wong says, "At Chinese new year banquets, for example, the Chinese serve noodles because the length of the noodle represents long life. Shark's fin doesn't have that same connection to cultural beliefs, other than the fact that it's a rare commodity." Phan echoed Wong's assessments, adding that dried shark's fin is something people bring as a gift when they don't know what else to bring.
Even Chiang, who says she loves shark's fin, laughs when I ask her about its role in Chinese cuisine. "It is a mark of status," she says. But, she adds, her concern genuine, "If I don't serve shark's fin, how will the meal be special?"
That question is a critical one. It's easy for people to pooh-pooh another cuisine's luxury foods. But status is important. It isn't just about showing off your wealth; it's about showing respect to the people you're buying dinner for, or inviting to your wedding, or celebrating a red egg and ginger party with. It is about finding concrete ways to honor your guests' presence as much as adding luster to your own. One of the issues that AB-376 proponents will have to wrangle with isn't just convincing chefs why shark-finning is wrong, but also how they can replace it.
While some may see AB-376 as yet one more white American attack on Chinese culinary practices, Europeans and Americans have also caused the collapse of a fishery thanks to their appetites for a luxury product: Caspian Sea caviar. The collapse of the Soviet Union into several states bordering on the sea, combined with rampant poaching and illegal trade, effectively cleared the Caspian of beluga, osetra, and sevruga caviar within a short decade or two. In 2005, the United States banned the sale and import of beluga caviar; starting last year, many countries cut off the import of osetra and sevruga as well.
I asked Michel Emery, director of sales for Petrossian Caviar in New York City, how his company survived the ban. It did so by pairing with Sacramento County's Sterling Caviar, one of the pioneers of farmed sturgeon roe nine years ago. Given that female sturgeon do not bear eggs for the first seven to nine years of their lives, it has taken several decades for businesses like Sterling Caviar to get going, and worldwide production still can't match what was fished from the Caspian during the peak years. But the quality of farmed caviar improved just in time for the product to retain its status and price.
The shark's fin industry should take two lessons from the disappearance of wild caviar. One: The only thing that had any effect on overfishing was to block demand, and even those bans were passed too late to prevent the fishery population from collapse. Two: The caviar industry survived the damage it wrought only because it came up with a substitute. Clearly, it's time for the shark's fin industry to get to work.
With all due respect for culture, and the marvelous texture of shark's fin, it is an ingredient we're going to have to say goodbye to, at least temporarily. We can do it now, by outlawing its sale, or do it in a very short number of years, when we've overfished the oceans and screwed up the ecosystem for good. Ours is the generation that has to pay for growing up in comfort by saying farewell to some foods we love.
Humans are status-defining animals, after all, and our capacity for adjusting our preferences and prejudices to respond to changing markets is well documented. Could the grand gourmets of the 1930s or 1970s have predicted that, in 2011, a dirty clump of carrots picked from just the right farm might carry more cachet than a beluga-topped blini? A status symbol is far easier to replace than an entire ecosystem. "The Chinese community is flexible," Wong asserts, confident in the rightness of the ban he's backing. "We'll adapt."