Shark Week: On shark’s fin soup, and alternatives

It’s Discovery Channel’s 26th Shark Week! Of course everyone has to write something about sharks this week, so here’s my small contribution. Being Singaporean Chinese, the obvious shark topic then would be shark’s fin soup.

Back when I was a kid, attending wedding banquets and fancy Chinese dinners usually meant putting on my best dress, sitting with strange people for three hours and eating shark’s fin soup. The soup, a gluey concoction of mostly starch and water with some crab meat and real shark’s fin dispersed in it, was more or less a standard item on the menu at every respectable fancy Chinese dinner I went to. I always add a huge dollop of black rice vinegar to it, because the soup by itself is actually quite tasteless. It was more like a vinegar kick for me each time.

Shark’s fin soup. The dark color is usually because of added black rice vinegar, which provides most of the taste. Image obtained from Wikipedia Commons, by harmon from Austin, TX (shark’s fin soup, uploaded by Caspian blue)

Like many have realized and pointed out, shark’s fin soup doesn’t have magical medicinal or nutritional value, it’s more or less tasteless and the shark finning industry continues to make huge dents in shark populations worldwide. It’s only a symbol of status and wealth in Chinese society, as only those who can afford it are able to serve the soup at their children’s wedding banquets. And really, it’s kind of depressing to think that my ethnic group is causing so much trouble with our traditions and customs and beliefs, especially when it is all for feeding egos. (There’s another one: starting today 7th August, the first day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar, the air surrounding my parents’ apartment block back in Singapore where I grew up will be clogged with smoke, ash and the smell of burning incense paper. This is because the seventh month is “Ghost month” and we have to appease the spirits by burning offerings. The festivities will last until the “Gates of Hell” close on the last day of the seventh month, 4th September this year.)

But on the bright side, the younger generation has begun to turn away from this status symbol. Bonnie Tsui gives an elegant take on it here in a New York Times Opinion piece. Indeed, I was very proud when my elder sister did not serve shark’s fin soup at her wedding banquet two years ago. In the NYT piece, Tsui makes a note that French wine is beginning to take on a similar role to shark’s fin soup as a status symbol. But then, will the same thing happen with French wine? This reminds me of any situation in which a single, or a few, items carry the responsibility of representing something so important as a human’s status in society. Perhaps we can only really move on from our traditions and beliefs when there is a diverse range of status symbols to choose from, or better yet, we accept that there is no need for any item to represent our status in society.
Anyway, I have actually tried a “shark’s fin soup” that, in my memory, was far better than any shark’s fin soup that I’ve had. Behold Cucurbita ficifolia, literally “shark’s fin melon” as translated from its Mandarin name, 鱼翅瓜. 

Cucurbita ficifolia, or shark’s fin melon, spaghetti squash and figleaf gourd. It has a texture very, very similar to that of shark’s fin, except it also has a subtle sweetness to it. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

My mum made soup out of it once, and it was pretty damned good. OK, maybe it was because my mum made it. Here’s a recipe for shark’s fin melon soup from NoobCook, no starch to thicken it, no need for black rice vinegar to give it some taste. Maybe when, or if, Cucurbita ficifolia takes over shark’s fin as the status symbol in Chinese society, we should start worrying about its spreading plantations causing deforestation and loss of habitat and the like. Till then, don’t put yourself in dangerous situations like trying to kiss a shark on the lips!