It’s hard to get worked up over the plight of sharks. I admit it. They’re not as majestic as elephants, but they are disappearing faster than most of us realize. And just like the tusks of the elephant, only one part of the shark has any real value — its fins. The rest of the body is dumped back into the ocean as just another piece of garbage.
China’s shark fin soup is the culprit. The sad fact is that as China’s population has become more and more wealthy, its demand for shark fins has skyrocketed, directly resulting in the plummeting shark populations. The International Union for Conservation of Nature stated recently that a sixth of the world’s shark species are at high or very high rate of extinction, and as Jake Tilson noted last year on Zester, “Up to 73 million sharks are caught annually, many just for their fins.”
Ban on shark fin in the works
A pending California state bill would ban the sale, consumption or trade of shark fins, giving shark populations the opportunity to recover. Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold said it most succinctly not too long ago in the L. A. Times: “There is no third way with shark’s fin — we either stop eating it because we choose to preserve the species, or we stop eating it because soon there will be none left to eat.”
There’s still a chance that the tide will change, for this traditional Chinese ingredient is starting to lose its cachet, even among the Chinese themselves. Prominent celebrities such as basketball star Yao Ming and movie star Jackie Chan have become vocal about their support for the movement. This in turn is leading conscientious diners on both sides of the Pacific to protest rampant overfishing and the cruel practice of “shark finning,” where only the fins are lopped off live sharks before they are dumped back into the sea to either drown or be eaten alive.
A taste for the gelatinous
This all prompts the question, what is it about shark fin soup that is so appealing to the Chinese palate? The answer is simple: its gelatinous quality. Many of China’s exotic ingredients are savored for their texture rather than flavor. Sea cucumbers, deer tendons, swallow’s nest, jellyfish … in and of themselves have little or no flavor. But what they do have is a gentle chewiness that is loved by the Chinese almost as much as Americans adore anything crunchy.
Shark fin soup started in the southern province of Guangdong, where dried seafood has played an important part in the cuisine for centuries. Then, in the latter half of the 19th century, Beijing’s diners were gifted with a delicious influx of spectacular Cantonese dishes, courtesy of an imperial official and poet from Guangdong named Tan Zongjun, whose famous banquets rivaled any in the capital.
Tan had given his chef, Cao Jincheng, one directive: Make the best cuisine that anyone has ever tasted in the capital city. The results, which came to be known as Tan Family Cuisine, or Tanjiacai, were legendary, combining the most refined dishes of Guangdong with the familiar flavors of Beijing. Invariably elegant and richly sauced, Tan Family Cuisine soon became one of the great branches of Beijing’s culinary arts. More than 100 recipes make up this delectable Beijing-style cooking, the most famous of which are seafood dishes. Of these, the greatest are those that highlight shark fins.
Shark fin texture with a conscience
Fortunately, we can still dine like the Tans without endangering sharks; vegetarian shark fin is a remarkable substitute. Available frozen in 1-pound bags, the labels tend to translate the main ingredient for this alternative as gelatin, but my guess is that it is actually a combination of seaweed or agar-agar and starch, since veggie shark fin can be simmered without melting. As with the real deal, it is flavorless and provides a fragile gelatinous texture. (Some recipes suggest using cellophane noodles — also called mung bean noodles or fensi — in place of the mock shark fin, but they soften too quickly and turn gluey.)
This new version of the soup, which I’ve developed from the Tan original blueprint, concentrates on providing the same traditional delicate flavors, but punctuated with ersatz shark fin to satisfy that inimitable Chinese passion for texture. Here, as in Chef Cao’s original creation, everything but the stock ends up flying below your sensory radar — the dried scallops are practically undetectable in the final dish, providing only the barest suggestion that this soup is also about the sea. The green onions and ginger hover in the background, and the small piece of Chinese ham lends just a faint smoky saltiness.
Seek out a package of vegetarian shark fin in your Chinese grocer’s freezer and prepare a large tureen of a soup so good that it would have pleased even Tan Zongjun. And give the ocean’s sharks an opportunity to live another day.
(Carolyn J. Phillips’ most recent article, on Sichuan cuisine, includes a recipe for Sichuan wontons with red chili oil.)
Mock Shark Fin Soup, Tan Family Style
黃燜素魚翅 Huangmen suyuchi
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multi-course meal
- Place the dried scallops in a heat-proof bowl and cover them with warm tap water. As soon as they have plumped up, use a paring knife to trim off any tough fibers or debris.
- Rinse the ham and trim off the skin. Cut a quarter of the ham against the grain into paper thin slices and then into a fine, even mince for your garnish. Chop the rest of the ham into about 6 pieces for the stock.
- Rinse the chicken breast and duck carcass, removing any organs or big pieces of fat, and trim as needed. Place the poultry in a stock pot and cover with cool tap water. Bring the water to a boil and simmer about a minute to remove any impurities, and then dump into a colander in the sink. Rinse the chicken and duck under cool tap water, being sure to wash off any scum.
- Return the chicken and duck to the rinsed out stock pot, cover with about 16 cups of filtered water, and add the scallops, ham chunks, ginger and green onions. Bring to a full boil, lower the heat to a gentle simmer, and cook the soup uncovered for about 3 hours to get every bit of flavor from the chicken parts. The liquid should be reduced to about 8 cups and the bones should have completely broken down at this point.
- While the stock is cooking, prepare the poached meat garnishes by placing the chicken breast and duck leg in a small saucepan and covering them with water by at least 2 inches. Bring the water to a boil, and then dump it out and rinse off the chicken and duck.
- Rinse the pan, return chicken and duck to it and add filtered water to cover. Bring to a boil again, cover, turn off the heat, and let the chicken and duck poach undisturbed for about 15 minutes. Check the meat by piercing with a chopstick; the juices should run clear.
- Strain the cooking liquid into the stock pot.
- When the chicken and duck pieces are cool enough to handle, remove and discard the skin and bones, and shred the meat with your hands into long strips.
- Place the minced ham in a heatproof bowl and steam for about 5 minutes; discard any juices. Taste, and if it is overtly salty, rinse the ham with boiling water. Drain in a small, fine sieve, and taste again; repeat as necessary.
- Place a large, fine sieve over a large (3- or 4-quart) saucepan and pour the stock into a covered 2-quart casserole, preferably a ceramic one with an unglazed exterior that the Chinese called a “sandpot” (shaguo). Use a heavy spoon to press all the juices from the solids before discarding them. You should have a nice bit of yellow chicken fat floating on the top, which is quite delicious, but most of it may be skimmed off if you must.
- Defrost the vegetarian shark fin by placing the package in a large bowl and covering it with hot water, adding more hot water as necessary. When it has completely defrosted, pour the contents into a sieve (don’t use a colander, as the holes are too big), and rinse under cool tap water. Drain well.
- Add the drained vegetarian shark fin to the stock in the casserole or sandpot and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and slowly cook uncovered for about 20 to 30 minutes so that it absorbs these flavors and plumps up a bit.
- Gently stir in the shredded chicken and duck to heat through.
- Sprinkle the minced ham on top and serve at once, either in a tureen or in delicate soup bowls. This soup is best when eaten immediately while the vegetarian shark fin is still firm and the flavors are perfectly balanced.
Vegetarian shark fin (suyuchi) can be found in the frozen section of some Chinese grocery stores. It is usually sold in 1-pound bricks. Keep it frozen until needed and defrost it either by placing it in a cool area on the counter overnight or by soaking the unopened package in hot water. Open the package into a sieve in the sink and work the pieces apart under warm tap water. Drain thoroughly before using.
Dried scallops (ganbei) are best found at a Chinese herbalist’s or a specialty dried goods store, although some Chinese grocers will keep them behind the counter with other expensive goods like dried ginseng root. When using them to flavor stock, go for the cheaper small ones, which are just as tasty as the large ones. The dried scallops should have a slight “give” to them when pressed and should have a fresh scent of the sea. Keep dried scallops in a jar in a cool, dark place.
Chinese ham (Jinhua huotui) is a dried, pressed ham that is as often used as a seasoning as a main ingredient; brined or canned ham should not be used as substitutes, although country ham or Smithfield ham can be excellent. These hams are generally sold as slices in Chinese grocery stores with the bone and skin attached. Select a piece that is free of mold, is a nice rose color, feels slightly soft and not at all sticky when you press it, smells fresh and smoky, and has the smallest ratio of bone to meat; if you find any black mold on the skin, just scrape it off. Keep the ham completely dry and refrigerated in an air-tight bag; it will keep well for weeks this way. Just cut off the amount you wish to use and rinse it carefully under tap water, pat dry with a paper towel, and trim off any bones or skin; these can be tossed in soups for a wonderful boost of flavor.
Shaoxing rice wine (Shaoxing jiu or huangjiu) is a specialty of the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang. Sometimes spelled Shao-hsing, this rice wine has a lovely aroma reminiscent of sherry and dried mushrooms. The best quality wine is not needed except for drinking, but neither should you go for the cheap “cooking” wine; something in the $3 to $5 range is usually good. Store the rice wine in a cool, dark place where it will keep pretty much indefinitely.
Zester Daily contributor Carolyn J. Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney’s in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.
Photo: Vegetarian shark fin soup. Credit: Carolyn J. Phillips
Slide show credit: Carolyn J. Phillips