Shark fin soup

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Shark fin soup
Chinese cuisine-Shark fin soup-04.jpg
Alternative names Shark's fin soup
Type Soup
Place of origin China
Main ingredients Shark fins, broth
Cookbook: Shark fin soup  Media: Shark fin soup
Shark fin soup
Traditional Chinese 魚翅
Simplified Chinese 鱼翅
Hanyu Pinyin yú chì
Literal meaning Fish fin

Shark fin soup (or shark's fin soup) is a traditional soup or stewed item of Chinese cuisine and Vietnamese cuisine, served at special occasions such as weddings and banquets, or as a luxury item in Chinese culture.[1] The shark fins provide texture, while the taste comes from the other soup ingredients.[1]

The soup originated centuries ago during the Song dynasty, serving the imperial family and court members. During the Ming dynasty, the dish's popularity increased and by the time of the Qing dynasty was in high demand. Once commercial fishing and trade increased, the soup became highly sought-after while income levels of Chinese communities rose worldwide. International concerns over the sustainability and welfare of sharks have impacted consumption and availability of the soup. Consumption reduced by 50–70% in China between 2011 and 2013.[2] Imitation shark fin soup is a version of the soup prepared without the use of actual shark fins; synthetic shark fins or other alternatives replicate its chewy, gelatinous texture, and are economical and painless to cook.


Genuine shark fin soup or stew is made with shark fins obtained from a variety of shark species. Raw shark fins are processed by first removing the skin and denticles, then trimming them to shape and bleaching to a more-desirable colour.[3]

Sharks' fins are sold in many forms: dried, cooked, wet and frozen. Canned ready-to-eat shark fin soup is also available in Asian markets.[3]

There are two types of the dried form, cooked/skinned (shredded) and raw/unskinned (whole), the latter requiring more preparation.[4] Both need to be softened before they can be used to prepare soup.


In shark fin soup, the fins themselves are virtually tasteless. The taste comes from the soup; the fins are used for their texture[5] rather than adding any flavor.[6] It has a "chewy, sinewy, stringy" texture.[1] Krista Mahr of TIME called it "somewhere between chewy and crunchy."[7] Dave Lieberman of OC Weekly wrote that it is a "snappy, gelatinous texture". Most westerners' reaction to eating shark fin for the first time is that it has almost no taste.[6]

Health impact[edit]

Shark fins and other shark parts for sale in a Chinese pharmacy in Yokohama, Japan

There is no scientific evidence that shark fins can be used to treat any medical condition.[3] Sharks biomagnify toxins, so eating shark meat may raise the risk of dementia[8][9] and heavy metal poisoning such as mercury poisoning.[10][11]

Shark fins were believed in Chinese culture to have properties boosting sexual potency, enhancing skin quality, increasing qi or energy, preventing heart disease, and lowering cholesterol.[12] In traditional Chinese medicine, shark fins were believed to help in areas of rejuvenation, appetite enhancement, and blood nourishment and to be beneficial to vital energy, kidneys, lungs, bones, and many other parts of the body.[3]

There are claims that shark fins prevent cancer;[13][14] however, there is no scientific evidence, and one study found shark cartilage to be of no value in cancer treatment.[15]

Vitamin content of typical shark fin soup is much less than that of typical vegetable soup, containing almost no vitamin A. However, it contains slightly more iron, zinc, riboflavin, and phosphorus than normal vegetable soup.[16][17]

WildAid, a wildlife non-governmental organization, warned that eating too much shark fin can cause sterility in men.[11] It is known that larger fish such as shark, tuna, and swordfish contain high levels of mercury and methylmercury salts.[10] For soon-to-be-pregnant women, pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children, the United States Food and Drug Administration has advised avoiding consumption of fish high in mercury.[18][19]

High concentrations of BMAA are present in shark fins. Because BMAA is a neurotoxin, consumption of shark fin soup and cartilage pills may pose a risk for degenerative brain diseases (such as Alzheimer's and Lou Gehrig Disease).[8][9]

Counterfeit shark fins often also contain toxins.[20]

Market and demand[edit]

Restaurant sign-board, Chénghuángmiào, Shanghai, China (2009)

Shark fin soup has a long history, but is recently declining in popularity.

Early use[edit]

Shark fin soup dates back to Song dynasty in AD 968, serving the imperial family and court members. Its origin is traced to the dynasty's founder, the Emperor Taizu of Song (Zhao Kuangyin), who created the soup to showcase his status.[21] The Song's upper-class members took pride in indulging in the most lavish and sumptuous luxuries, and willing to try exotic and unfamiliar new dishes including shark fin soup.[22] In the 15th century, the dish's popularity increased when Ming dynasty admiral Zheng He brought large quantities of shark fins to China from East Africa, following his fourth expedition of the Treasure Voyages. Since then, shark fin soup became an established dish in China and was considered to be one of the eight treasured foods from the sea.[23] It was popular with Chinese emperors since the 10th century because it was rare, and tasty only after a complicated and elaborate preparation.[24][25] By the time of the Qing dynasty, shark fin soup was in high demand.[26][27] Its manual of cuisine, the Suiyuan shidan, indicates that the shark fin was eaten as soup, stew, and even as a stir-fry, but in all cases the fin had to be boiled for two days.[5]

The popularity of shark fin soup rose in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as standards of living began to improve.[1]

Demand peaks, c.2000[edit]

In the late twentieth century, shark fin soup was a popular delicacy in China, and was eaten in Chinese restaurants around the world.[28][29] The increasing wealth of the middle class raised demand.[30] The shark fin trade more than doubled between 1985 and 2001.[31]

Based on information gathered from the Hong Kong trade in fins, the market was estimated in 2004 to be growing by 5% each year.[32] Consumption of shark fin soup had risen dramatically with the affluence of the middle class, as Chinese communities around the world enjoy increasing income levels.[1][31][33] The high price of the soup meant it was often used as a way to impress guests or for celebrations;[34] 58 percent of those questioned in the WWF survey said they ate the soup at a celebration or gathering.[35]

The dish was eaten at occasions such as weddings, banquets, and important business deals.[24][36][37] It was used to communicate wealth, power, and prestige,[36][37] as it was believed to show respect, honor, and appreciation to guests.[24][12]

In Hong Kong restaurants, where the market had been strong, demand from Hong Kong natives had reportedly dropped in 2006. This was more than balanced by an increase in demand from the Chinese mainland,[34] where economic growth put the expensive delicacy within the reach of an expanding middle class.[30]

A survey carried out in China in 2006 by WildAid and the Chinese Wildlife Conservation Association found that 35% of participants said they had consumed shark fin soup in the last year,[28] while 83% of participants in an online survey conducted by the World Wide Fund for Nature said that they had consumed shark fin soup at some time.[35]

Shark fins are imported in massive amounts by Vietnam.[38]

Demand declines, 2005–present[edit]

Yao Ming, a basketball player who campaigns against shark fin soup

By late 2013, a report in The Washington Post indicated that shark fin soup was no longer seen as fashionable in China.

The movement against shark fin soup began in 2006, when WildAid enlisted Chinese basketball star Yao Ming as the front person for a public relations campaign against the dish. The campaign was taken up by a coalition of Chinese businessmen, celebrities, and students. Businessman-turned-environmentalist Jim Zhang helped to raise concern within China's government, which pledged in 2012 to ban shark fin soup from official banquets within three years.[39]

In January 2013, China Daily reported that officials in Zhejiang province found that many shark fin soup restaurants were selling artificial shark fins, and that one-third of the samples that the officials had obtained contained dangerous amounts of cadmium and methylmercury.[20] Within two months of the China Daily report, China ordered officials throughout the country to stop serving dishes made from protected wildlife at official banquets, and the Hong Kong government issued a similar order in September.[39]

According to WildAid, consumption of shark fin soup in China has dropped by 50–70% from 2011 to 2013. China's commerce ministry indicated that consumption of shark fin soup during the 2013 Spring Break holiday had decreased by 70 percent from 2012, and Hong Kong industry groups reported that shark fin imports were down by 20 to 30 percent from 2012.[39] Also, anecdotal evidence points to a worldwide drop in shark fin prices and a move away from shark fishing in parts of Africa.[39]

Ethical and Environmental concerns[edit]

Finned sharks

Shark fins used in the soup are the cartilaginous dorsal, pectoral and caudal fins. Fins are sometimes harvested by a process known as shark finning. The person harvesting the fins often leaves the shark to die in the ocean after having cut the fins off. Overfishing poses a major threat to the world's shark populations.[40]

Some groups, such as Fins Attached, Shark Savers, IUCN, Shark Angels, Shark Whisperer and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, discourage the consumption of the soup due to concerns with the world's shark population and how inhumanely sharks are finned alive and returned to the ocean, unable to swim, hunt or survive. The prevalence of shark finning and the sustainability of sharks are both debated.[41][42] Some feel banning the dish is offensive.[43][44] Major hotel operators such as The Peninsula Hotels and Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts stopped serving shark fin soup in the interest of offering sustainable seafood.[45][46] The three largest supermarket chains in Singapore—Cold Storage, NTUC FairPrice and Carrefour—have stopped selling shark fins while also citing sustainability concerns.[47] Hong Kong Disneyland dropped the soup from its menu after it could not find a sustainable source.[48] The University of Hong Kong banned serving shark fin soup, hoping "to give a lead which others in Hong Kong will follow".[49]

Malaysia's Natural Resources and Environment Ministry banned shark fin soup from official functions in a commitment to the Malaysian Nature Society to conserve the shark species.[50]

In the United States, Hawaii,[51] Washington,[52] Oregon,[53][54] California,[55] Guam,[56] and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands have banned the sale and possession of shark fins, effectively eliminating the availability of the soup.[57] Illinois, which had been a large importer of shark fins, was the fifth U.S. state, and the first non-Pacific state, to implement a ban on shark fin trade.[58] In 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act, closing loopholes used to obtain shark fins.[59] In October 2011, California governor Jerry Brown, citing the cruelty of finning and potential threats to the environment and commercial fishing, signed Assembly Bill 376, banning the possession and sale of detached shark fins.[55][60] Opponents charged the ban was discriminatory against Chinese, the main consumers of the shark fin soup, when federal laws already banned the practice of finning. Whole sharks would still be legally fished, but the fins could no longer be sold.[55] A lawsuit has been filed in United States District Court for the Northern District of California by Chinese American groups seeking to overturn the ban.[61]

In Canada, the Vancouver city council decided to work towards creating a ban to preserve the shark species.[62] Toronto joined other regional municipalities in adopting a shark fin ban on 13 October 2011.[63] Calgary banned shark fin soup on 16 July 2012.[64]

On 2 July 2012, the State Council of the People's Republic of China declared that shark fin soup can no longer be served at official banquets. This ban may take up to three years to take effect because it is such a social dish in Chinese culture.[65]


The marine conservation organization Bite-Back has campaigned against the sale of shark fin soup in Britain. On the back of its campaigning, the London-based Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant Hakkasan agreed to stop selling the controversial soup.[66] High-profile names such as Gordon Ramsay, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and Charles Clover, author of The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat, have lent their support to the charity's 'Hacked Off' campaign.[67]

Imitation shark fin soup[edit]

Imitation shark fin soup
Imitation shark fin soup (Clovis, CA).jpg
A bowl of imitation shark fin soup, served in 2017 in California for a Chinese American family during Chinese New Year.
Alternative names Mock shark fin soup, vegetarian shark fin soup
Type Soup
Place of origin China
Region or state Hong Kong
Main ingredients Imitation shark fins (may use konjac gel, cellophane noodles, vermicelli, shark fin melon, or other alternatives), broth
Cookbook: Imitation shark fin soup  Media: Imitation shark fin soup
Imitation shark fin soup
Traditional Chinese 碗仔翅
Simplified Chinese 碗仔翅
Hanyu Pinyin wǎn zǎi chì
Literal meaning Fin in little bowl

Imitation shark fin soup is a noodle soup often sold in small bowls by street vendors in Hong Kong, where it is a common street snack. It is a substitute for shark fin soup, a dish condemned by the Humane Society International, which says tens of millions of sharks are cruelly killed each year for their fins.[68] Imitation shark fin soup is also a more affordable alternative to shark fin soup.[69]

A popular, low-cost imitation shark fin soup (zh:碗仔翅) made using vermicelli is widely available in Asia.[70][71] They can also be made from cellophane noodles.[72][6]

Imitation shark fins[edit]

A block of frozen imitation shark fin

Substitutes for shark fin exist, commonly known as "mock shark's fin".[according to whom?] Mock shark's fin was first used in Hong Kong during the 1970s. From the 1990s onward, mock shark's fin became popular in many restaurants throughout China. Products can be made from various ingredients.

A Taiwanese manufacturer's recipe for imitation shark fin contains water, gelatin, alginic acid, sugar, casein, and triolein to reproduce the chewy, gelatinous texture of shark fins. Konjac gel (known as moyu tofu in Chinese and konnyaku in Japanese) can also be used as a substitute for shark fin.[73][74] While cellophane noodles are also often used as an alternative to shark fins,[75] some cooks find them too soft and unable to withstand longer cooking that allows flavors to be absorbed. Other substitutes for shark fin are cucurbita ficifolia (shark fin melon), chicken breast, jinhua ham, vermicelli, soy, and pig's skin or gelatin. As with shark fin soups, ingredients such as edible mushrooms, kelps, seaweeds, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, and beaten eggs may be used to improve the taste.

In 2015, a seafood company from San Francisco was working to develop their own variation of imitation shark fin using algae-derived ingredients and recombinant proteins.[76]

In contrast to shark fin, these alternatives are inexpensive and easier to prepare. Imitation shark fin, konjac gel, and other alternatives can be purchased in preserved form from Asian supermarkets and convenience stores.


Imitation shark fin soup originated from Temple Street in Hong Kong during the 1950s and 1960s.[69] Few people at that time could afford genuine shark fin soup, but street vendors collected the broken parts of shark fins discarded by Chinese restaurants, cooked them with mushrooms, egg, and pork, as well as soy sauce and other ingredients. Cooking the mixture into a soup, it was served in a small bowl. This soup was inexpensive and lacked the authentic flavour but since it was cheap, tasty and contained lots of ingredients, it was popular among the poor and became one of the famous street-side snacks in Hong Kong.

Apart from the street-side, imitation shark fin soup may also be found in fast food stores and expensive Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong, and also on mainland China. Since April 2016, Cup Noodles released various instant imitation shark fin ramen soups.[77]


False descriptions of goods and services are prohibited by the Trade Descriptions Ordinance in Hong Kong.[78] Thus, imitation shark fin soup may have to change its Cantonese name since "wun tsai chi" (literally: "fin in little bowl") may mislead customers into thinking there is real shark fin in it. However, many argue against this new policy; some claim that the name is tied to the Hong Kong people's collective memories and culture, representing the history of old Hong Kong. It would also be inconvenient for tourists seeking the dish. Opponents of the name change suggest the government should consider whether customers are misled before carrying out the policy.

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]