The Emperor's Soup
by Daniela Linares, Matías Sauter & Michelle Soto
In this photo-reportage, the authors explore the cultural and historical dimension of shark finning, giving a clear example of how many environmental problems require a cultural approach
It was first served on the table of the Chinese Emperor of the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), but it was in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that the shark fin soup became a delicacy.
Cooking it takes no more than 15 minutes. It is prepared with egg white and flour to thicken it. Being cartilage, the fin has no flavor and its nutritional content is null. It is valued more for its texture and its ability to enhance other flavors, which is why it is cooked with chicken or fish broth.
Like many cultural aspects of China, gastronomy expanded with the empire throughout Asia. Today, in countries like Thailand, this soup is as daily as rice.
It is attributed with properties to strengthen the internal organs, and with as aphrodisiac and as retardant of aging. But above all, and despite the simplicity of its preparation, the shark fin soup is associated with power and wealth. Serving it at special events, such as a wedding or banquet, symbolizes prestige, status and generosity to the guests.
In fact, the dish has been related to economic growth. When the money abounds, the consumption of soup increases and, therefore, the demand of fins to prepare it. This was the case during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) promoted this food.
With the arrival of the communists in the mid-twentieth century, the soup disappeared from the Chinese tables, just like any other symbol of the aristocracy. In this way, the consumption of the dish was limited to Hong Kong. However, the economic prosperity that is lived since 1980 returned the dish to the Asian cuisines and conquered the taste buds of a thriving middle class. For the organization Wild Aid, in the coming decades, it is expected that 200 million people increase their socio-economic level and, therefore have access to this gastronomy. Currently, a bowl of soup costs $100.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), shark fin has become a luxury commodity. On average, about 10,000 tons of fins are traded annually through the Hong Kong port.
Each year, according to a study published in the scientific Journal Letters in 2006, about 73 million shark species perish because of their fins. Since the meat is sold at a lower price and takes up a lot of space in the boats’ warehouses, some fishermen have resorted to cutting the shark fins and discarding the rest of the body, a lot of times the animal is still alive when thrown into the sea.
As predators, the ocean depends on sharks to maintain balance, but sharks have biological characteristics that make them vulnerable to exploitation: they mature very late, they have a low reproductive rate and their pregnancies are long. Species are not able to replenish individuals as fast as these are captured and that has reduced their populations. It is said that the planet has lost 90% of its sharks.
Many of these sharks come from Central America. It is believed that, on average, each year, between 7,000 and 8,000 kilograms of fins are exported from Costa Rica to Asian countries.
While fins are still being exported at the expense of sharks, something has been changing in Asia. Owing to international campaigns on the cruel practice of finning, more and more Asians have been refusing to serve fin soup at their banquets and, rather, have opted to consume an imitation dish, which contains no cartilage but noodles.
This imitation soup originated in Hong Kong's Temple Street between 1950 and 1960. Since most people could not afford a bowl of soup, street vendors devised a new dish from the discarded fins of restaurants, which they cooked with mushrooms, egg, pork and soy sauce. Currently, this imitation soup lacks shark fins, even its debris, and is found in both street stalls or fast food places and fine restaurants. In the interest of sustainability, many expect a new dish to replace the soup served to the emperor of the Sung dynasty.
The world is no longer the same and cultural practices have been able to evolve at the rate at which society changes. It is human beings who give value to certain foods, clothing and objects to make them into status symbols. The decision to support or not certain practices, through consumption, becomes a manifesto of principles in the times running. In this sense, the soup of the emperor could be reinvented to honor the tradition, without harming the environment.
Daniela Linares & Matías Sauter
2017. Bangkok, Thailand
Published September, 2017
Volume 1, Issue 4