Saturday, January 10, 2009
Shark's Fin Soup - To Eat or Not to Eat?
Shark's fin soup. Highly prized and beloved by some; scorned and tossed by others for its effect on the shark population. There is no doubt it's a controversial dish. There is now a local movement called lovesharks.sg that wants a more active role in educating and changing the public's mindset about sharks. They held a dinner at Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant to help spread the message to media and bloggers. This bowl above is of vegetarian shark's fin - an alternative for those who prefer not to consume sharks.
Although I don't actively order it, I do love shark's fin (and shark meat too). Mainly for the fin's texture (and appearance, I guess). If you can give me that similar chewy, bouncy crunch, I am quite happy not to have the authentic fin. In a bowl of shark's fin soup, the stock is actually more important than the fin, in terms of flavour. Mockfin in a good soup is fine by me.
But I reckon it will be quite difficult to convince hardcore shark's fin soup fans to give up this delicacy. What is the real picture? Can we have shark's fin soup without guilt? A vet surgeon and member of CITES Animals Committee thinks so. He says many sharks are caught not specifically for shark's fin soup but on a wide scale by organised fishing fleets. Countries like Spain, Portugal, UK and France haul up 80 per cent of the global shark catch. Lots of sharks are caught alongside tuna and swordfish. He agrees live-finning happens, and is wrong, but it's not the main way sharks are caught. Reducing demand for shark's fin soup will not reduce the amount that's caught anyway. If we don't consume the fins, it will just be turned into animal feed or fertiliser. Of course, there is a flurry of responses rebutting him.
Anyway, there is certainly no lack of news in the media about shark over-fishing and pointing the finger at shark's fin soup.
Wikipedia entry on Shark's fin soup has lots of links
Discovery/AFP in 2008 reports that 11 species are near extinction from overfishing
Shark's fin soup is even driving other stuff off the menu, such as clam chowder
CNN 2008 article on shark's fin soup altering the ecosystem
New York Times 2006 article on sharks disappearing
International Herald Tribune editor personally slamming shark's fin soup
Actually, the most effective argument may be that shark's fin soup isn't so safe. Shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish are the four fish that have the most methyl mercury in their bodies. See the FDA/EPA advisories on mercury in fish (mainly for pregnant or childbearing-age women, as well as children). Men are advised not to eat shark more than once a month, and pregnant women (and those with childbearing intentions) and children to avoid it altogether.
Meanwhile, here are the rest of the dishes at the vegetarian dinner. It's part of the restaurant's Chinese New Year festive S$358++ (for 10 pax) set menu. (Note: The quality of the food is in no way related or indicative of lovesharks.sg's efforts). The vegetarians shark's fin soup above was a little lacklustre, until we added some black vinegar. Well, the flavour depends on the broth, not the shark's fin ingredient, which itself is flavourless. There are terrible soups with shark's fin too.
Prosperity Yu Sheng, with mock raw salmon which tasted like, well, fishcake. This was a bit on the overly sweet side (for me), and the shredded vegetables tasted a bit dry and fibrous.
The other dish also with "mockfin". Caltrops with hairy (monkey head) mushroom. Water caltrops to be exact, which look and taste like harmless chestnuts here. But they are quite the menacing picture when unshelled with their dark, devil-like horns. Water caltrop also goes by other names like horn nut, giant mosaic plant, devil pod and bat nut. My first time trying it. The dish is surrounded by a moat of chopped spinach gravy.
Various mushrooms with stir-fried asparagus. The ice cream cone is a little too gimmicky. The mock-meat stuff within is either trying to replicate chewy cuttlefish or spicy beef.
Spicy pan-fried vegetarian fish. It sure was spicy. And this glaring redness is the actual colour, I kid you not. It threw off the white balance on most of our cameras. The mock "cod" was a flake-textured tofu.
There was banana, jackfruit and mock crabstick within the fried rolls coated with almond flakes. Perhaps a take on the mango prawn roll. Hubby liked this, but I wasn't too sure it worked. The vegetarian otah with seaweed was a rather strange accompaniment.
Ah, the best dish of the evening, and I'm sorry I don't have a clear photo of it! Stewed golden fungus with vegetarian tenderloin. A rich medley of textures and flavours. It's the third time monkey head mushroom made an appearance, but I rather like it, so I didn't mind. There was some chewy, crunchy thing that looked like daikon but is probably konjak or konnyaku based. It tasted like sea cucumber, almost.
Chicken rice with stewed soya mock chicken. The Zaobao photographer put it most succinctly to the manageress in her feedback, "The rice is nice, but the chicken not so!"
Ah, dessert thankfully saved the day. Osmanthus pudding with xue lian (snow lotus). Firm jelly infused with osmanthus tea, and the chewy bits (mock hashima?), sweetened with some rosy, berry-like substance. My command of Mandarin was too poor to help me understand the waitress' explanation of what it is. But it was refreshing and delicious.
Thanks to Lovesharks.sg for hosting this dinner. I enjoyed meeting the passionate young activists, and fellow bloggers/media. I had hoped to learn more from the representative from Sea Shepherd but he was unable to make it. I hope he is feeling better now.
Addition: And since some readers are a bit confused, I shall clarify again - I have not sworn off shark's fin myself. I don't order it but will still eat if served - which is terribly infrequent. Basically I don't add to the demand but I may not be reducing it either. I did not attend the Lovesharks dinner because I boycott shark's fin, but to hear more about their side of the story. After all, what is the point of them organising such events only to preach to the converted?
Reducing demand for shark's fin soup is only part of the solution, we need to target the problem from other angles too. For example, fishing regulations. The U.S. has decreed that fishing boats that bring in shark fins have to bring in the whole carcass, not just fins - the Shark Finning Prohibition Act signed in 2000 by President Clinton - and that has helped curb finning. Finning bans are also in Costa Rica, Africa, Brazil, Ecuador and the Maldives. Can we lobby for the same law? Will PM Lee sign something similar?
Here are some other ideas:
1. Contact other shark conservation organisations worldwide, and make 2010 "Year of the Shark". Tie up for activities and reward people who give up shark products for just one year (hopefully they will continue). Get restaurants to offer vegetarian fin options and give them free publicity. Highlight companies that have shark-friendly practices (airlines and restaurants that have removed shark's fin from menus, places that have stopped selling shark's fin). Get chefs to do cooking classes or shows on how to use mockfin instead of shark's fin. Combine shark population info for a yearly shark census to show improvement or decline.
2. Find out what fishing practices are in the region, and work out incentives to discourage live finning.
3. Push for governments to require identification of shark species of the fins to help assess fishing effects on shark populations.
4. Think about fisheries where shark is a by-catch. How do we encourage them to release live sharks caught, back into the sea? Australia has regulations for this.
5. Amazingly, India, which was formerly the largest shark-fishing country, has banned hunting of all shark species! They now allow smaller scale fishing on subsistence levels, but that is still amazing. Well, I don't know how much shark fishing goes on in Singapore, but
6. Pressure Internet trading companies to stop selling shark fin.
7. Work with organisations to get the Ministry of Health to issue official warnings on methyl mercury in sharks (and similar fish), like what the FDA has done.
8. Petition the government to mandate health warning labels on edible shark products, like what they do with cigarettes. Perhaps even to get restaurants to add a warning note on menus?
9. The Singapore government is very concerned about healthy babies. Get their support and
work with hospital maternity and children wards and doctors to educate patients regarding shark and mercury consumption. Nothing scares a pregnant woman off foods more than harm to babies.
10. Target schools to educate kids about sharks, habitats, and what they can do to help. Encourage them to form life conservation clubs - not just sharks but other endangered species as well.
11. Write in to women's, parenting and baby magazines to get them to feature the hidden dangers in foods (especially shark) for women and children.
If we truly love sharks, we will find more effective ways of saving them. Rather than merely passing on that bowl of shark's fin soup, which is noble but doesn't always make a statement, perhaps we can consider harder-hitting measures.
I love shark's fin, so I don't want sharks to disappear.
Meanwhile, check out the other blogger's posts - Keropokman has great close-up shots of the food. Ladyironchef has a dramatic entry too. Waiting for southernoise and superfinefeline to blog!
LOTUS VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT
2nd level, Quality Hotel
201 Balestier Road
Lunch: 1130hrs - 1500hrs
Dinner: 1800hrs - 2200hrs
Tel: 6254-0090 for reservations