No one craves shark fin.
It's tasteless, expensive and sort of a once-a-year type of deal that you find at wedding banquets. With the exception of a little bit of protein, it doesn't even have any real nutritional value. It's only a delicacy because it's so pricey.
For Californians, the fins have officially been banned as of July 1st. But for those who are curious or simply looking for another soup alternative to their fancy Chinese banquet, there are plenty of options like fish maw and bird's nest to give to your guests and impress your in-laws with. And if you're still that set on shark fin, there's imitation shark fin out there in market that looks and tastes just like the original.
Called yuchi (鱼翅) in Chinese, shark fin has been a Chinese delicacy since the Ming Dynasty. It's a banquet staple -- a sign of prosperity and wealth, because only the rich can afford it.
The fin is grated into vermicelli-like strands, and is typically sold processed and dried. A single pound costs anywhere from $200 to $100,000. It's usually served in soup form and a bowl averages out to $30 to $50 per person.
Because the delicacy itself is flavorless, the thick soup, traditionally infused with chicken, smoked ham and pork bones, is a huge focal point that takes hours to whip up.
The state of California banned shark fin on July 1st, joining six other states in an attempt to preserve the shark populations around the world. Signed into law in October 2011, anyone caught in violation of the law can face a penalty of up to six months in jail and a $1000 fine.
The ban was met with quite a bit of controversy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is currently promoting a bill in Congress, pushed by commercial fisheries, that would supersede legislation outlawing shark finning.
"It's terrible," said Sunny Wan, who is a seafood supplier for major Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles . "Shark fin is only of value because it's hard to get."
Like real shark fin, the alternatives have clear, gelatinous textures that don't have much of a taste by themselves. These products are sold dried and need to be soaked in water for hours before it's cooked.
- Imitation Shark Fin
The major difference between real and fake? Real shark fin is a little bit more tougher than the imitation versions. "Eat the imitation version immediately," Wan advised. "If you leave it for too long, the gelatin will soak up the soup. Real shark fin doesn't do that."
Faux shark fin is primarily made out of gelatin and is typically imported from Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. We obtained the nutritional information from Vege Paradise in Monterey Park. The ingredients: seaweed alginate, gelatin, water, FD&C Yellow #5 and potassium sorbate.
In Los Angeles, a large family-style bowl of imitation shark fin goes for $15 to $20. You can get a completely vegetable-broth based version of the soup at Vege Paradise (small: $7.95, large: $12.95) in San Gabriel and Happy Family Restaurant (large: $15.95) in Monterey Park. Both restaurants specialize in vegetarian Chinese food.
Shark fin soup isn't traditionally vegetarian though. If you're looking for an alternative more similar to the original, head over to Ocean Star in Monterey Park ($5 for a small bowl). The Ocean Star version is served in a thick broth that has been infused with pork bones, ham and chicken. The meat is cooked in water for hours on low heat and then strained out before soy sauce, corn starch and the fake shark fin is added.
Better yet, try the faux fins stir-fried at Embassy Kitchen. Embassy Kitchen serves theirs on a huge platter ($16), stir-fried with bean spouts, julienne carrots, and egg whites
- Bird's Nest
Bird's nest, which is harvested from the spit of a swiftlet, is the preferred alternative to real shark fin now that the ban is in place. Swiftlets make their nests out of their saliva. (Yes, really.) The nests are harvested from a swiftlet farm (most of them are located in Indonesia), and at as much as $4,500 per pound, bird's nest is a Chinese delicacy that takes a pain-staking amount of effort to process. It takes one person about eight hours to clean ten nests.
A single pound sells for roughly the same amount as shark fin, but because the dried nest expands to twice its size when soaked in water, it's a much more cost-efficient alternative.The flavorless product is much more porous though than the cartilaginous texture of fin, and is fantastic savory or served as a dessert in a brown sugar broth.
The swiftlet's saliva is a Chinese medicinal ingredient and rumor has it that the delicacy promotes the regeneration of cells, supposedly moisturizing the skin and "maintaining beauty."
At Ocean Star, a small bowl of bird's nest, which is cooked with egg whites and crab meat, goes for $30 a pop. The broth is infused with chicken and pork bones.
- Fish Maw
Fish maw is the poor man's version of shark fin soup. It's made out of the swim bladder of fish and is an excellent source of collagen. The texture? A gelatinous marshmallow. Fish maw is usually served in a corn starch-rich broth of egg whites and found in most Chinese seafood restaurants in Los Angeles.
At Ocean Star, the dish, egg whites included, goes for $10 for a single serving. For a much more luxurious version, we recommend the fish maw soup with crab meat ($12) at Lunasia in Alhambra.
- Ocean Star: bird's nest, imitation shark fin, fish maw with egg whites soup
- Lunasia: bird's nest, fish maw with egg whites and crab meat
- Happy Family Restaurant: imitation shark fin soup
- Embassy Kitchen: fish maw soup, stir-fry imitation shark fin with bean sprouts
- Vege Paradise: vegetarian imitation shark fin soup
Read up on the ever-changing shark fin laws here.
More Chinese food on KCET:
Roasted Ducks And Cantonese BBQ At Sam Woo
Respect, Extinction, and a Bowl of Shark Fin Soup
Face-Off: Chinese Beef Rolls
What It's Like Being on 'Bizarre Foods' With Andrew Zimmern