Sure, I get that this is a cultural issue. The shark fin soup isn’t so much about the pleasures contained within the bowl (well, save for texture) as it is about the prestige of merely having a bowl placed in front of you. Given the high price of shark fins, just serving the soup in certain cultures is supposed to convey a sense of the host’s wealth and power. It’s sort of the Chinese equivalent of ordering a bottle of Cristal at the Park at 14th.
I felt no such power or prestige as I sat down to a modest helping of crabmeat-shark soup at New Kam Fong, a neighborhood Cantonese spot in Wheaton with stark fluorescent lighting and a nearly-empty dining room. I felt like a criminal on the black market.
The appetizer-size portion of soup is priced at $11.95, which tells me that the shark in question is definitely not the quality (or quantity) that can cost connoisseurs hundreds of dollars a bowl. In fact, it might not even be shark fin. I had a baffling conversation with a gentleman employed by New Kam Fong about which tiny strands of floating protein in my soup were actually shark.
He mentioned the word “kelp.”
“Are you saying there’s no shark in my soup, then?”
No, he responded. It’s in the kelp, which only confused me further.
Our language barrier — or his need to prevaricate about the soup’s ingredients — prevented me from understanding exactly what I was eating. It sounded like some sort of composite product that included shark.
The soup itself looked like the standard egg-drop variety. There were identifiable chunks of crabmeat floating in the liquid; by their appearance and their occasional blasts of bold, scalloplike flavors, I would peg the meat as Indonesian in origin . Strands of egg whites bobbed on the surface, and glass noodles rested on the bottom. There was a lot going on in the thick, gelatinous dish.
None of it, however, smacked of shark fin. There was no crunchy element. There was no chewy element. There was nothing but a tasty bowl of soup — and a lot of unanswered questions in my troubled mind.