Monday, March 26, 2012

Rant: Can Bordeaux Save The Sharks?

Key the theme music to Jaws...

Conservationists estimate that as many as 100 million sharks are slaughtered each year, primarily for just their fins. There is a dispute as to the actual number, with the lowest figure around 25 million. Because of this massive slaughter, it is thought that some shark species could have decreased by more than 75%. In a process called "shark finning," fishermen, while at sea, will catch sharks, remove their fins, and then throw the rest of the shark back into the sea where they will die. The most commonly targeted shark species include blacktip, blue, bull, hammerhead, mako, porbeagle, sandbar and thresher, though sometimes other shark species are taken as well.

What is being done with all those shark fins? They usually end up in soup. Shark fin soup is a famous Chinese soup, with a history extending back centuries to at least the Ming Dynasty, if not older. Originally, it was a rarity, prized by Emperors and the very wealthy because it was very expensive and required extensive preparation. Though it has expanded beyond that elite, it generally still is seen as a luxury item, a requisite for special occasions such as weddings and grand banquets. It is considered a symbol of wealth, honor, prestige and power. Interestingly, shark fins are basically tasteless and they are embraced more for their texture.

Since the passing of the Shark Finning Prohibition Act of 2000, shark finning has been illegal in the U.S. and for U.S.-registered vessels. But, there was a loophole that permitted U.S. fishermen to purchase shark fins in international waters and then resell them in the U.S. Fortunately in 2011, a new law, the Shark Conversation Act, closed that loophole. Now, shark fins cannot be imported into the U.S. unless they are accompanied by the rest of the shark's body. The Act also permits the imposition of sanctions on other countries which allow the practice of shark finning.

Recently, a possible solution to the shark fin problem has been proposed, the use of farmed tilapia fins from Taiwan. Taiwan tilapia, originally called Wuguo Fish after the two men, Wu Zhen-hui and Guo Qi-zhang, who introduced the fish to Taiwan in 1946, is said to possess the same appearance and texture as a shark fin, and thus would make a good substitution in the soup. The fins must be served shredded though because they are much smaller than the usual shark fins. Tilapia is much cheaper and a far more sustainable choice than shark fin. But will it serve as a proper replacement?

No, the best thing to do would be to skip the tilapia fins and look to Bordeaux wine as the best replacement for shark fins. Yes, that sounds very strange. How will adding wine to soup replicate shark fins? It won't! Rather, we need to understand the rationale behind shark fin soup, to look beyond the dish itself and look deeper into its symbolism.

As I have already said, shark fin is a luxury item, a symbol of wealth, honor, prestige and power. A Chinese host wants to display their generosity and prosperity, to impress their guests with something rare and valuable.  It is not about the taste or texture of the shark fin soup. It is the symbol of what that soup represents which is far more important. So, even if tilapia can match a shark's taste and texture, it will still fail as a replacement because it lacks the proper cachet. It is not an expensive and rare ingredient, not a symbol of wealth and prestige. It would be seen more as a cheap knockoff, and a Chinese host might lose honor for serving such an an inferior item.

So what is truly needed is something rare and expensive which can replace shark fin, something which carries prestige. High end Bordeaux wine, such as First Growths, or some other equally expensive wine, can fit that qualification. We all know how Bordeaux wine has taken China by storm, and that expensive Bordeaux has found a great market in China. That type of wine fits within their cultural desire to display their prestige and wealth, to give to friends and business associates an expensive gift. Bordeaux can easily be more expensive than shark fins, so it offers an even greater symbol of wealth. At weddings, great banquets and other such significant events, serving costly Bordeaux can speak far more loudly than any soup.

So save the sharks and let the Chinese drink Bordeaux instead!