Shark fin soup is a traditional Asian dish steeped in history and culture, but with modern ethical and environmental concerns, is this one cultural experience travellers should be avoiding?
I love food, I really do. Anyone who knows me well or has spent any time at all with me on the road will tell you that. I think food is one of the best ways to delve into the heart of any local culture when travelling, and there is very little that I don’t like or won’t try, from the insect snacks in Thailand to the the infamously rotten century egg in China, I have tried it all!
Those damn celebs on get me out of here are a bunch of …
But despite that, there are a few select things that I absolutely refuse to east out of simple ethical and moral concerns.
And shark fin soup is right up there at the top of that list.
What is shark fin soup?
Shark fin soup dates back to at least the 14th century A.C.E in Ming Dyansty China. It is more than possible that local fishing communities had eaten the dish even further back than that, but it is during this time that it became a cultural delicacy in China, and by the time of the Qing Dynasty in the 18th and 19th Century, shark fin soup had become a full blown status symbol, served at weddings and imperial banquets.
Shark fin soup eventually became known as one of the eight noble dishes of the sea and was steeped in symbolism and tradition, and was associated with wealth, power and honour. Serving the dish bestowed status not only on the guest but the host too, and in Chinese culture – and by extension large parts of other Asian and south east Asian cultures too – serving the dish shows respect for your guest and the occasion.
And this is a huge problem.
When times change and people become more environmentally aware, how exactly do those concerned with conservation fight against that level of ingrained societal prestige?
The problem with shark fin soup.
Increasingly over the last decade or so, a long and rapidly growing list of international organisations, charities and scientific and academic institutions have all added their voices to a justified outcry to this practice, and have progressively been calling for an outright ban on the practice of finning, the process by which the ingredients for shark fin soup are harvested.
Finning is the process where sharks are caught en mass, their fins are hacked off while they are still alive and they are then simply thrown back into the sea to die because the rest of the shark is considered worthless.
Apart from the practice itself being inherently barbaric (even cattle bred for food have laws to protect their welfare), it is heavily contributing to the wholesale endangerment of the entire shark species, with various subspecies of shark now vulnerable or on the brink of extinction entirely as a direct result of overfishing and finning according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Conservation efforts have done a lot in recent years to change public attitudes toward shark fin soup in recent years with sales dropping significantly after many countries have started to outlaw the practice or even the sale or distribution of the fins themselves, but no one seems to have told anyone in Asia yet where the dish is still very popular.
Travel to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo or many other major Asian city and you will see how much the demand is still there.
A recent trip down Bangkok’s Chinatown revealed an explosion of neon signs and shop fronts all declaring the offensive soup for sale, and you can even find the dish for sale as far spread as Jakarta in Indonesia or Kuching in Borneo.
What can travellers do?
Now as I said I am normally the first to throw myself into the culinary aspects of cultural immersion, I believe food is an essential part of understanding other cultures and I would normally wholeheartedly encourage others to do the same.
But not this time.
Cultural immersion, respect and appreciation are all wonderful things that travellers are blessed to be able to experience, but there are times when when ethical and moral objections must take precedence.
So I urge all of you heading to Asia or south east Asia on your travels to keep your eye out for any establishment, restaurant or stall selling shark fin soup or its primary ingredient and avoid them like the plague.
Do your research, into the finning industry and make a fully informed, moral decision to show those involved that there is no appetite for, or profit in, shark fins, and do your part to help end this barbaric practice once and for all.
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