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