Ethical Consumerism Overrated?

An interesting column that appeared on last Sunday’s papers. Read on and see if you buy her logic and constant qualifiers. 

YOU’RE WHAT YOU EAT

I’ve never regarded shark’s fin soup as a delicacy because I was force-fed it as a child.

My father, you see, didn’t believe in half-measures. When he was interested in something, he’d go the whole hog.

For a while in the 1960s, his dream was to create the most beautiful black orchid in Singapore, so for years he and my mother mixed tiny seeds in bottles of agar-agar culture to come up with new orchid hybrids.

He then got into cultivating bonsai, which he turned into a business.

Another time, he was seized with the idea that there was a market for old typewriters, and so imported dozens from Sri Lanka. He had to sell them for a song when this business idea came to naught.

Shark’s fin soup was another of his life-long obsessions.

He loved it and wanted to eat it every day, so he got my mother to learn to cook the dish, which is usually served on special occasions in restaurants and is expensive.

He would set off before dawn to the then-Kangkar wholesale fish market in Upper Serangoon where he got our supply of fish and, when the craze hit him, shark’s fin.

Making the soup was painstaking work.

If the fins hadn’t come already cleaned, my mother would have to do this, and carefully, for you didn’t want any of those precious slithery strands to slip down the sink.

She’d then line a bamboo basket with raw pig’s skin and place the fins in the middle. Chinese wine and lots of coriander were added and the pig’s skin folded over to form a sort of giant samosa.

On top of that bundle she’d arrange fresh pig’s trotters and chunks of chicken. All this was put into a steamer and slowly cooked for hours.

The shark’s fin – softened and rid of the fishy smell – was then set aside while the rest of the by-now gelatinous ingredients were mixed with Chinese ham, crab meat and soya sauce to form a tasty broth.

Growing up, I had shark’s fin soup coming out of my ears. At any one time, we’d have pots of it in the fridge where it would have turned into jelly and had to be heated up.

My father believed shark’s fin was nutritious and would make us strong, and so he forced us to eat it.

While I didn’t dislike the dish – the fins are tasteless but the soup is flavourful – I developed something of a phobia for it.

Those days, no one batted an eyelid about eating shark’s fin soup. The Chinese have for centuries revered shark’s fin as a delicacy and it was served as a treat – a symbol of respect, honour and prosperity.

Today, no one can escape the bad press surrounding it.

Anti-shark’s fin soup advocates cite two main reasons the dish should be banned.

One is cruelty. Fishermen, they say, perform ‘finning’ where the coveted fins of the sharks are hacked off and the rest of the fish, sometimes still alive, thrown back into the sea to sink and die.

The other is the environment. They say the killing of sharks for their fins is depleting the world’s shark population with some species almost extinct, and this has dire effects on the ocean’s eco-system.

I would never order a bowl of shark’s fin soup for myself.

But this is not so much because of the anti-shark’s fin lobby, although I am sympathetic to its argument about protecting the environment. It is because I’m still tired of it, given how much I’d consumed when I was young.

But if I am served a bowl of shark’s fin – like at my recent Chinese New Year’s Eve reunion dinner – I will take it.

I’ll take it because it is there.

I’ll take it because the soup is tasty.

I’ll take it because it will be a sheer waste of money to leave it untouched to be then thrown away.

Mostly, though, I’ll take it because it will be rude to my host if I don’t.

If someone had honoured me by serving the treasured dish, I don’t believe I should be so ungracious as to reject it, and in front of other people too. Why make him lose face?

A friend said he so dislikes people who give others a hard time at wedding dinners that serve shark’s fin soup that he’ll deliberately eat extra portions.

‘If they’re really all that compassionate, they should stop eating meat too. Killing cows and chickens is also cruel,’ he said.

Indeed, where does one draw the line as an ‘ethical consumer’?

At shark’s fin? But what about shark meat? It’s been used in the West for fish and chips and such.

Is it okay for sharks to be killed for their meat but not their fins? Isn’t any form of ‘killing’ traumatic to the animal? Why limit it to finning?

How about foie gras? It must be horrible to be a goose and force-fed just so that your liver becomes enlarged and deliciously fatty and buttery when eaten.

Feedlot cattle? Can’t be nice to be packed in a pen with thousands of others, fattened up with an unnatural diet, then killed for food.

Factory-farmed chicken that have been debeaked? Same thing.

Bluefin tuna? They’re becoming endangered because of over-fishing.

My sister tries to eat only ‘humanely raised’ and ‘humanely killed’ animals. She feels less bad if they had been killed in as least a painful method as possible.

But she admits it’s not all altruistic. She believes animals that are highly stressed have stress hormones and their meat isn’t healthy to the human body.

But isn’t ‘humanely killed’ a contradiction?

In my world view, animals – unless they have been domesticated – were created to be killed by humans for food.

And if you’ve watched documentaries, you’ll know animals in the wild are vicious. They rip apart and kill each other all the time, whether for food or to protect themselves or their young.

It’s all part of nature and the cycle of life, so why are some people so hung up about what animals might be ‘feeling’?

A friend, who reviews food, describes herself as an ‘equal opportunity eater’. She eats almost anything as it is her job to do so, and because she doesn’t think one species deserves more sympathy than another.

She recently had dinner and was served a roast piglet. She showed me an iPhone photo of it and, my goodness, we both agreed, it was the cutest little piggy ever.

It had been roasted to a rosy hue, had a round little head and its eyes were closed, as if it were sleeping. Totally angelic.

She ate it.

It’s a pig.

It’s meant to be eaten.

There are some things I would never eat – dog meat, snake, frog, turtle, pigeon, oysters, chicken feet, insects and gooey stuff such as sea cucumber.

But this has more to do with how they make my stomach turn than with ethical reasons.

To each his own, I always say.

We are ultimately what we eat, or don’t eat, and we live with our conscience.

What gets my goat is when ethical consumers adopt a holier-than-thou attitude and hector anyone who is not like them.

And so, at the risk of receiving their vitriol, I’ll admit it again: If served shark’s fin soup, I’ll eat it.

Maybe, as a friend pointed out, I also represent a generational divide.

I straddle my father’s generation that regarded shark’s fin as a cultural and culinary treasure, and today’s young that thinks the dish is barbaric.

I have good memories of it and want to remain loyal to it, yet I also don’t want to be flamed for not hating it. It is an uncomfortable position.

But if I have to choose between ranting about cruelty to sharks and hurting the feelings of someone who had served me the dish because he wanted only the best for me, I will keep quiet and eat up my shark’s fin soup, anytime.

Sumiko Tan, The Strait’s Times

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9 thoughts on “Ethical Consumerism Overrated?

  1. Hi Derek,
    The problem with people’s eating habits today is that the demand for meat can no longer be supported by natural means (people rearing their own animals, having sufficient livestock to feed themselves). This has resulted in animals being reared in disgusting conditions in order to produce them in large numbers. Chickens are kept in enclosed areas with little or no space to roam. They are fed grains which they were not naturally meant to eat. (If you are interested, watch Hugh’s Chicken Run – it’s available on DVD and also on Asian Food Channel if you subscribe to cable) Same applies to cows and pigs. Tons of meat are wasted everyday because people are selective about the cuts/parts they like (I liked chicken breast and would never go near the organs of any animal because they were disgusting). This is especially so for shark’s fins, seeing how only the fins are considered delicacies and shark meat is mostly rejected because 1) people do not enjoy its taste and 2) people see anything apart from chicken, beef and pork as weird/exotic and do not wish to eat it. Coming back to chickens, pigs and cows, they are fed with food which could have gone directly to human beings. Instead, we are adding an unnecessary process of feeding food to food to produce food. And at that, producing LESS food than could have been eaten with the original feed. (It takes 16 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of beef) Do you see the wastage I do?

    Sumiko Tan’s comparison of shark’s fin to foie gras and killing of other animals is incoherent. You don’t have to choose one over the other. Shark’s fin is as unethical as stuffing geese with food. But that doesn’t mean you should eat shark’s fin just because people are eating foie gras.

    I see and understand that people think animals are meant to be eaten. I am still undecided, but so far tend to agree. And if that is what people think is right, then perhaps what they should consider is to respect the food they eat and take responsibility in what their eating habits are doing to the environment. If you like chicken breast, learn to eat the other parts of the chicken as well. If you think that beef shank and brisket taste good, have you tried the cow’s tongue? More importantly, find out how your meat is produced. Do you know how the animals are reared, fed, killed? Do you know that because dairy cow produced meat that people do not like to eat, male dairy cows are slaughtered and thrown away because they don’t produce milk nor meat? If demand decreases, supply will decrease. I personally have stopped eating meat because I cannot stomach the food production process. Choosing to eat meat does not mean taking animals for granted or rearing them under poor conditions in order to satisfy their palates. This is why people opt for organic or free range meat. Animals are not mass produced and stuffed in boxes, or injected with hormones. If people understand the way meat is produced and still wish to eat meat, then the least they can do is respect the food they eat.

    If served shark’s fin soup, I would not eat it. I would offer it to someone who would eat it. But I would also have told my host beforehand that I do not eat shark’s fin soup.

    • Straits Times needs someone like you to write in… not some unethical, self-absorbed excuse of a journalist like Sumiko Tan.

      • while sumiko tan may have some ‘weird’ points, she is not unethical or self-absorbed. just because people have different ideas towards food production doesn’t mean they are definitely wrong. if she can’t judge her food, who are you to judge her? certainly not some hypocrite

  2. Pingback: “You’re What You Eat” By Sumiko Tan « Random Musings

  3. Pingback: Shark’s Fin – What’s all the fuss about? « 4M's Reading Programme Blog

  4. Pingback: Are we putting feeling over conscience? « Y4 Scholars' Reading Programme Blog

  5. I hate to say this, but Sumiko Tan has a point. I also have another point to make.
    While some species of sharks have indeed become endangered, it appears that the lobby against shark’s fin soup has reached such menacing proportions that we can no longer post or comment on recipes for shark’s fin soup online without being threatened and cursed.

    Has the human freedom to choose been thrown out of the window?

    Like Sumiko Tan, I don’t buy shark’s fin, but I will eat it if someone offers it to me. I had received a can of shark’s fin in a hamper on Chinese New Year. Being a hopeless cook, I sought help from online recipes. Imagine my surprise when I saw these harsh comments posted against a Singaporean blogger, Wokkingmum, by some supposedly compassionate people.

    Said one of them, “Anybody who eats this should be brutally murdered by a shark.”

    “You’re going to die very soon..ha you stupid bitch,” threatened another who had named himself or herself “Wokkingmumkiller”.

    http://www.grouprecipes.com/1197/sharks-fin-soup.html

    I was stunned by the militant attitude of these people who had apparently been influenced by the lobbyists. I was also angry because much of the rhetoric against shark’s fin emphasises that “Asians” eat it. I guess they did not realise just how many cultures there are in “Asia”. There was a disturbing undertone of Western superiority in some comments that I read.

    Needless to say, it was virtually impossible to locate shark’s fin soup recipes on YouTube. I was assailed by video after video of bloodied finning. It was as though wanting to cook shark’s fin soup is a sin akin to abortion. Where there were videos of shark’s fin soup consumption, personal attacks abound.

    While the brutal capture of sharks is certainly wrong, I feel that the people who make different choices should not be bullied into submitting to the wishes of a particular group. Such online bullying goes against the human freedom to choose.

    In addition, when considering the shark’s fin lobby, we need to think about whose voice it really is. The louder a voice is, the more power it wields. But at what cost? Are we really saving marine life and the eco-system, or are we taking attention from another more urgent cause because of all the headlines that the sharks are hogging?

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