Shark fin soup (or shark’s fin soup) is a traditional soup or stewed dish found in Chinese cuisine and Vietnamese cuisine. The shark fins provide texture, while the taste comes from the other soup ingredients. It is commonly served at special occasions such as weddings and banquets, or as a luxury item in Chinese culture.
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 as 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. Imitation shark fin soup has become a popular alternative, which uses substitutes to replicate the fins’ chewy, gelatinous texture.
Traditional shark fin soup or stew is made with fins obtained from a variety of shark species. Raw fins are processed by first removing the skin and denticles, then trimming them to shape and bleaching to a more-desirable colour.
Sharks’ fins are sold dried, cooked, wet, and frozen. Ready-to-eat shark fin soup is also available in Asian markets.
Dried fins come cooked/skinned (shredded) and raw/unskinned (whole), the latter requiring more preparation. Both need to be softened before they can be used to prepare soup.
The taste in the soup comes from the broth; the fins themselves are almost tasteless. Rather than for taste, the fins are used for their “snappy, gelatinous” texture, which has been described as “chewy, sinewy, stringy.” Krista Mahr of Time called it “somewhere between chewy and crunchy.”
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. Sharks biomagnify toxins, so eating shark meat may raise the risk of dementia and heavy metal poisoning such as mercury poisoning.
Shark fins are believed in Chinese culture to have properties of boosting sexual potency, enhancing skin quality, increasing qi or energy, preventing heart disease, and lowering cholesterol. In traditional Chinese medicine, shark fins are 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.
There are claims that shark fins prevent cancer; however, there is no scientific evidence, and one study found shark cartilage generally to be of no value in cancer treatment.
WildAid, a wildlife non-governmental organization, warned that eating too much shark fin can cause sterility in men. It is known that larger fish such as shark, tuna, and swordfish contain high levels of mercury and methylmercury salts. 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.
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.
Counterfeit shark fins often also contain toxins.