LOS ANGELES – An ancient Asian dining tradition comes to an end in California today, and grocer Emily Gian is none too happy.
Gian has slashed prices on shark fins, the astoundingly expensive ingredient of a coveted and ceremonial soup, in hopes she will sell out before a California ban on sale or possession of the delicacy takes effect.
“The law is unfair,” said Gian, whose Chinatown store sells shark fins for $599 a pound. “Why single out Chinese people in California when shark fins are legal in many other states?”
Across town, retired science teacher Judy Ki offers an answer.
Ki grew up in a wealthy Hong Kong family that served steaming bowls of shark fin soup to honor guests at birthdays, banquets and weddings. These days, she sees the delicacy in historical context.
Shark fin soup dates to the Ming Dynasty, when it was reserved for emperors as a symbol of status and power over the most dangerous predators. “Back when it was quite a physical feat for a fisherman to land a shark, it was the ultimate symbol of yang, or male energy,” said Ki, a spokeswoman for the Asian Pacific American Ocean Harmony Alliance.
It certainly wasn’t prized for its flavor, which is almost nonexistent. Its chief culinary merit is an ethereal, gelatinous texture, achieved through careful drying, precise trimming and a complex preparation method that takes several days. For flavor, cooks often add chicken or ham.
As China’s middle class grew in recent decades, the number of people who could afford the delicacy rose sharply. To meet demand, the fishing industry found a particularly cruel way to harvest several million fins each year. Fishermen slice the fins off live sharks and throw the crippled animals back into the sea to drown.
An estimated 73 million sharks are killed each year for their fins, which can sell for more than $2,000 a pound in California.
Ki finds that morally wrong. “It is not right to slaughter massive numbers of sharks for a bowl of soup that lasts five minutes,” Ki said. “Culture evolves. Extinction lasts forever.”