Shark tale: Hong Kong's use of fins as a delicacy under fire

By Joyce Woo
Sunday, September 5, 2010

HONG KONG - When Steven Leung and Sylvia Cheung celebrated their nuptials in this southern China financial center recently, they lavished their guests with one sumptuous dish after another - bird nest soup, lobster, abalone.

But one traditional dish was missing from the 13-course Cantonese banquet. The newlyweds chose not to serve shark fin soup.

"I saw the cruelty in shark slaughtering in online videos. The way the fish is dumped back into the water - it is just inhumane," Leung said, referring to the practice of hacking off the fins of sharks, then setting them free.

The Hong Kong couple are part of a growing grass-roots movement in this global hub of shark fin consumption that aims to remove the staple of gourmet Chinese cuisine from restaurant menus.

"Shark fin is not a necessity at banquets, as long as guests are well-treated and there is good food," said Cheung. "We have great substitutes for the soup that are equally as prestigious and exquisite."

For centuries, shark fin - usually served as soup - has been a coveted delicacy in Chinese cooking, extolled for its supposed ability to boost sexual potency, enhance skin quality, increase one's energy (or "qi"), prevent heart disease and lower cholesterol.

To prepare for soup, dried fin first is soaked in water overnight, then boiled for several hours to soften the cartilage and remove impurities. It then is cooked in a rich chicken broth with salted ham, mushrooms, dried scallops and abalone. Shark fin itself is tasteless, but has a slippery and glutinous texture.

It's an especially cherished menu item in wealthy Hong Kong, a pricey status symbol for its status-conscious people. Depending on the quantity and the quality of the fin in the soup, the dish can cost from $10 to $150 a bowl.

"Hong Kong is the Grand Central Station in the shark fin trade," said Canadian filmmaker Rob Stewart, who chronicled the shark-hunting industry in the 2007 documentary "Sharkwater."

A 2005 poll conducted by the conservation group WWF-Hong Kong found that nearly 80 percent of Cantonese-speaking residents in the city of 7 million had consumed shark fin. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that the former British colony handles between 50 to 80 percent of the global shark fin trade. Hong Kong was the world's top importer of shark fin in 2007, taking in 10,209 metric tons, or a total value of $276.7 million, according to the latest figures from the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization.

Shark-free menus popping up

However, activists such as Stewart are making an impression on a younger generation of Hong Kong residents such as the Leungs by touting the gruesome toll of the dining habits of their parents and ancestors.

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