Shark's Fin Soup

It makes sense that soup made from a shark's fin—said to be an aphrodisiac—costs so much. Only the promise of increased virility would lead someone to pay HK$1,000 or more for a bowl of the stuff. It actually consists of cartilage from the great beast's pectoral, dorsal, and lower tail fins that has been skinned, dried, and reconstituted in a rich stock form. This cartilage has almost no taste on its own, and is virtually indistinguishable from tun fun (cellophane) noodles that are used to create "mock shark's-fin soup."

Selling sharks' fins is a big business, and Hong Kong is said to be responsible for 50% of the global trade. The soup is a fixture at banquets, weddings, and state dinners here. Love potion, elixir, vitality booster, or not, at the very least the dish is high in protein. Recently, however, conservation groups have pointed out that it's also high in mercury. But of even greater concern is the practice of "finning." Since shark meat as a whole isn't valuable, fishermen often clip the fins and dump the rest of the animal back into the sea, and an increasing number of diners—especially the younger crowd—and restaurants are foregoing this dish for environmental reasons.

So, is eating shark's-fin soup a not-to-be-missed Hong Kong experience or a morally reprehensible act? Well, we don't need to take sides in the debate to warn you away from it. Let us repeat: the shark's-fin cartilage has no taste. This makes it—and bird's-nest soup, that other tasteless Cantonese delicacy—one of the biggest wastes of money in the culinary universe.

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