Saturday, January 10, 2009

Shark's Fin Soup - To Eat or Not to Eat?

Vegetarian shark fin soup
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 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'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
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.

Caltrops with hairy mushroom
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.

Fresh mushrooms with asparagus
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
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.

Fruity almond rolls and vegetarian otah
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.

Stewed golden fungus with vegetarian tenderloin
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.

Fragrant rice served with steamed soya chicken
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!"

Osmanthus pudding with xue lian
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 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!

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  1. Objections to the shark fin trade arises not just from the practice of live finning but also the destruction of shark habitat as a direct result of the shark fin trade. Sharks don't reproduce easily and this with the demand for shark fin means its survival chances are getting slimmer everyday.

    By Mr Giam's spurious argument, if a shark is already dead when you fin it, it's okay? I shall let readers reach their own conclusions.

    Another commonly touted excuse for shark fin consumption is "we eat the whole shark". The truth is, as you are slurping down your shark fin, you have absolutely no idea where the rest of the shark is. You have no idea the origin, what species, where the rest of the shark ended up. I suspect these people are just happy to delude and assuage themselves of the guilt of eating shark fin.

  2. If sinkees fight for their rights like this perhaps this country will not be in its current state today.

    Then again, it may be because they know it's useless to fight for their rights and hence switch their attention/time/effort to other 'worthier' causes.

  3. wow that's some long research on the sharks. neat work! nice meeting you again, and also the other bloggers, clicking and snapping away. haha

  4. I admire you even going for something like this. I have 2 days in a month which I am extremely fearful of... and it's the 1st and 15th of the lunar month...

  5. Nice sum up of what you have found on the internet, now that I have read a couple of your non-food reviews, I do have various thoughts when you touch on subjects that requires readers to give a second thought... This is no exception...

    Nice effort and looking forward to more of your entries...

  6. i thought I saw a bowl of double-boiled dorsal shark's fin with three treasures jsut the post b4 this. talk about irony and hypocrisy.


    Maybe the fin came from Taiwan!! Or Costa Rica!

  8. I have already stated that I love shark's fin, so what is so hypocritical about it?

    I am just helping Lovesharks spread their message, but I do put out both sides of the story. I'm sorry, can you read?

    While I do not actively order it, I will still eat shark's fin if it is already cooked and served. To throw the creature away would be a further indignity. But I am quite happy with shark fin alternatives or mockfin.

    If you are not happy with that, don't come to my blog.

  9. An easier way to make a stand, if you want to make it that is, is simply to make a clear request for no shark's fin. When I'm given a choice of menu, I would choose vegetarian just to make things easier for the host.

    If I have no choice in the menu I would just decline shark fin. The "wasting food" issue doesn't come in for me; if junking a bowl of shark fin down the rubbish chute would send the message to my fellow diners, I would do it. Anyway, most of the time, they would happily gobble down the extra bowl, mercury be damned, so I also won't waste my breath on them.

    If the plight of the sharks or the horror of the shark fin trade touched you in some way, would you consider taking a stronger stand on this?

  10. The plight of homeless people in the streets of sinkee touched me more.

    The absurdity of high ministerial pay touched me more.

    Amongst other things.

    Just because you are so obstinate I will go out of my way to eat a bowl of sharks fin, REAL, every day from today till the 15th of the lunar new year.

    I will also go out of my way to promote having sharks fin for this festive season and beyond too!

    HUAT AH!

  11. Eve+line, you are absolutely right - if it makes a statement, it would be worth doing. But just as you clearly illustrated above, most of it falls on deaf ears. It's simply ineffective. You just find people reaching across in glee to grab the newly available bowl of shark's fin soup. There is no more "shock value" in making this stand. If it still represents something important to you personally, by all means, please do it.

    But my query is - is it enough?

    What about more hard-hitting measures? I've added some ideas above, at the end.

  12. Let's not forget which culture has actually demonstrated that they are capable of causing extinction in a species; the West. Do a quick wiki search, it's not hard to see that the majority of animal extinctions were driven by the West for all sorts of reasons, some more stupid than others. It's easy for them to point a finger at the East now for our whaling, shark's fin consumption (traditions which have gone on for years mind you) etc when they've already done their fair share of proven irreversible damage. Go to hell, when China becomes the superpower, the hypocritical West will bow down like the dogs they are and know their rightful position is to gather the crumbs under my table. And all you White culture loving traitors, you will be there fighting for scrapes as well. Enough with these white-washed double standards.

  13. omg camemberu! where do these people come from?

  14. With the all-important concept of saving face at all cost, the Chinese will never be THE superpower.

    Heck, it can count itself lucky if it can survive the next 2 years.

    Just like sinkee.

  15. Thank you for suggesting the vegitarian shark fin soup. This is a great step forward.

    One can never be sure were the shark fins have come from or if the rest of the shark was discarded or not. 85% of the time, only the fins are collected as they take up less space and are the most veluable. Also one does not know what species of shark is being served or if it is a protected or endangered species or not.

    Having over 100 million sharks slauthered every year, for the sake of a plate of soup is having quite a disasterous effect on the survival of the species.

    Using "tradition" as the excuse to consume shark fin soup is only a mask to hide the true egoistic reason of wanting to be in the "higher Class" social standard.

    2009 has already been declared as the INTERNATIONAL YEAR OF THE SHARK. Check out

    Maybe you too would like to join and support this movement.

  16. We are going to eat shark's fins later! YUM YUM! :D

  17. As someone from 'The West' (cue dramatic music) yes, I will be the first to admit that we (although I hate being refered to as one culture - clearly we are not) have wiped out a significant number of our species of animals, and hey, I am British, so the other countries we came across, Singapore included. Can't you see we are trying to reverse the damage we have done? It isn't about preaching to other countries, we are trying to save our own home turf too.

    To the person who has mentioned the West should go to hell. Get over yourself and your grudges. Same Earth, same problem regardless of race, culture, religion.

  18. As addition from 'The West' (cue affecting music) yes, I will be the aboriginal to accept that we (although I abhorrence actuality refered to as one ability - acutely we are not) accept wiped out a cogent cardinal of our breed of animals, and hey, I am British, so the added countries we came across, Singapore included. Can't you see we are aggravating to about-face the accident we accept done? It isn't about admonition to added countries, we are aggravating to save our own home accommodation too.

  19. I love Shark fin soup - I dont eat with real shark fin though (although at weddings I would since it be in front of me and a bowl is like 30 bucks, cant really turn that down - ok, yes, i can, but even if i say no to it in the end it be eaten up by someone else so I eat will eat it in the end). But I do prefer mock/processed shark fin over real shark fin.

    Many love shark fin and eat real shark fin: They want to enjoy food and do not mind killing off a specie for it. No matter what is said to them they wont change their mind about it.

    But for people like myself whom love shark fin and willing to go vegetarian shark fin or processed/mock shark fin: then good for you.

    For people who hate shark fin and dont eat shark fin: Fair enough.

    For people who either love or hate shark fin and wont eat it but tell people off: Dont waste your time, people wont change their mind to it, especially about food. And constant flaming with no action is always boring and annoying to watch.

    Interesting blog!

  20. faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaart


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