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Endangered Species: They’re Not What’s for Dinner.

April 13th, 2010

By Betty Ho, Big City Chefs Food Writer

Recently, I watched as the producers of “The Cove,” a documentary exposing the killing of dolphins in Japan, won the Oscar for Best Documentary. Towards the end of their acceptance speech one of the producers raised a hand-made poster: “Text DOLPHIN to 44144,” it said. The next day, a sushi restaurant in Santa Monica was discovered to be serving illegal whale meat. The story broke on the New York Times and was the topic of an Atlantic Monthly blog post, in which author Trevor Corson raises an interesting point: “I think the issue of harvesting non-endangered whales, as Japan does (along with Norway and a few others), ought to begin with the same moral concerns I would bring to lobsters and everything else: how sentient is the creature, and how much did it suffer during the process?” What really struck me about Corson’s post however, was his rather simple question regarding the eating of whale sashimi: “If whale sushi isn’t even that tasty, why bother eating it at all?”

I remembered back to the first time I tried Kobe beef sashimi at a fancy Japanese restaurant in Taipei. The meat was a beautiful, deep red, and I couldn’t believe I was about to put raw beef in my mouth – but I did, and I distinctly remember the taste: nothing.
“That’s what good sashimi is supposed to taste like,” my uncle said smugly, for he was the one treating us to this fancy dinner. He finished off his final sliver of beef and savored it. “Some foods are eaten for texture rather than the taste. If you taste something, it’s most likely that the sashimi isn’t fresh.”

Raw beef is neither rare nor illegal, but I wondered what the appeal was, aside from the fact that it was quite expensive (we all know that something being expensive makes it that much more appealing to some people). This leads me to wonder about the numerous other delicacies I was taught to revere. Chinese people enjoy many tasteless albeit textured delicacies – all of which are rare and expensive. The one that comes immediately to mind is shark’s fin soup, which I had recently at a cousin’s wedding banquet. A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit a Taiwanese fish market and rather than fish, I remember only dozens upon dozens of shark carcasses lying about the floor. Some were female sharks who had been on the verge of giving birth and their unborn fetuses lay lifeless on the cement next to them. Every shark was missing its fins, all of them, some cleanly, others left with ragged skin where the cut hadn’t been so clean. It was a gruesome spectacle – and while Taiwanese people do eat the meat of the shark, the bodily flesh was not nearly as popular as the fins and I knew most of the carcasses were to be discarded like fish bones.

The fin itself is pure cartilage, and like a clear noodle, it holds flavor well but has none of its own. Chinese people cook it in extremely reduced chicken or seafood broth with a variety of spices, mushrooms, and Chinese herbs – thus giving the shark fin soup its distinct flavor not from the fin, but rather from the combined, slow simmering of the less costly ingredients. I cringe every time I see it on the menu, but I eat it anyway (as I did at the wedding) – after all, if the animal has already suffered and died for it, it would be more of a waste to throw away what has already been served on the plate in front of you.

Like Corson, I’m not saying we shouldn’t eat the things we enjoy, but that we need to consider our short and long-term impacts on the environment so that we can continue enjoying these foods in the future. But these things, of course are easier said than done. With increasing population and wealth, rare and perhaps endangered delicacies are more and more in demand. As always, it starts with the individual: making the decision to order something sustainable (and legal) whether its from the sea or from the land. For me, beef sashimi and shark’s fin soup are two delicacies I needn’t try ever again.

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