Since at least the 14th century, when the Ming Dynasty began its three-century stretch at the helm of China, shark fin soup has been a delicacy of upper-echelon Chinese. In 2011, with the dish in financial reach of many average citizens, the practice has become controversial due to the millions of sharks that must be harvested each year to satisfy demand for this exotic dish. Though variations exist, the cartilage of shark fins forms the textural center of a soup that is rich with more flavorful ingredients like seafood, chicken, vegetables and an Asian-inspired stock.
Those who partake in shark fin soup note that shark cartilage is not particularly flavorful. What it adds, however, is a uniquely chewy and even gelatinous component that takes on the flavor of the surrounding ingredients. Before the fins can be used, though, the skin and soft interior bones must be removed in a special boiling and soaking process.
Once the fins are processed, they are ready to be simmered in fish or chicken stock. The stock starts with hot oil, chopped scallions or onions, and some ginger, mushrooms and perhaps rice wine. After some caramelizing, fresh stock is added, along with the shark fin. After another short spell of simmering, about 10 or 15 minutes, the final ingredients can be added: pieces of chicken, shrimp, soy sauce and a little corn starch as a thickening agent. After the shark fin soup comes to a boil one last time, the chef can lower the heat and simmer it for another 10 or 15 minutes.
According to Voice of America radio, shark fin soup has been so well-regarded as a delicacy in China that many fisherman worldwide merely cut the dorsal and pectoral fins from the animals, then release them to die. An estimated 38,000,000 sharks met this end in 2006, reports National Geographic. This has led to an estimated 9,000 tons (8,164.7 metric tons) of shark fins being imported by China every year after being harvested in waters throughout the globe. These figures have many environmentalists worrying about ecosystemic imbalance.
The majority of Chinese in the 21st century, however, may be catching on to the dangerous consequences of a dwindling worldwide shark population. According to the New York Times, a 2011 survey of Hong Kong citizens revealed that nearly four-fifths thought it "acceptable" for a special event not to include shark fin soup. Since the dish is usually consumed at such events, many view this sea change as pivotal.