Fin de fin: Hong Kong restaurants offer alternatives to shark's fin

As controversy rages over shark's fin soup, kitchens are coming up with equally extravagant substitutes for banquets

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 January, 2013, 4:26pm

Corporate banker Arthur Chan Yat-long, 27, plans to wed Rachel Chan Mei-kwan, 26, in October. After seeing "disturbing" images of how shark fins are procured, the pair want a banquet without the ocean predator.

"We felt obligated to stop the cruelty by saying no to shark's fin at our wedding," says Arthur Chan.

Considered a delicacy by the Chinese for centuries, a luxury staple at weddings and Lunar New Year celebrations, the soup is synonymous with status and prestige. But in recent years it has provoked controversy. Marine conservationists decry the trade in shark fin, which has driven some species to near extinction.

Support for the conservationists' stance intensified this month as images of an alarming number of fins drying on a Kennedy Town rooftop went viral on the internet and sparked international outrage.

Some more traditional diners, however, are outraged at the idea of losing the dish from menus for formal occasions.

Averting parental outrage was a concern for the Chans when they informed their parents that they would be foregoing the speciality at their wedding banquet. Chan conceived a three-pronged plan: "First, we laid out our objections to serving shark's fin. Then we showed them pictures of what happens to them. Thirdly, we suggested the bird's nest soup option instead, which is as premium as shark's fin soup," says Chan, implying that serving the substitute can still be a way to show "face".

In the end the elders acquiesced. "Actually, they ended up being very supportive," he says. The banquet at Aberdeen Marina Club will serve bird's nest soup with shredded crabmeat.

As more diners, especially young couples, seek alternative menus, restaurants are generally happy to comply. Some have taken shark's fin off the menu altogether (especially those at top hotel chains). Others still serve the delicacy but also offer substitute choices. Most tend to offer alternative dishes that have the same luxury cachet, using equally costly ingredients such as bird's nest.

The Man Ho Chinese Restaurant, for example, presents bird's nest and fish maw cooked in chicken or seafood broths as substitutes. Located in the JW Marriot Hotel Hong Kong, which banned shark's fin last April, the restaurant offers alternative dishes sufficiently extravagant to allow diners to show "face".

"It is not hard to create alternative dishes to shark's fin soup since Chinese cuisine uses a lot of herbs, plus a variety of other ingredients are readily available. Also, preparation of, say, bird's nest soup requires less time than shark's fin soup," says executive Chinese chef Ip Kwok-fai. Dishes include bird's nest with seafood and bamboo pith, or chicken soup with fish maw, conpoy and sea whelk.

At the Kowloon Shangri-La, the shark's fin soup replacements are predominantly premium seafood, especially lobster, with creative flourishes from the hotel's Shang Palace chef, Mok Kit-keung. "In 2010 we saw the need to have alternatives to shark's fin soup so we created more dishes with other premium seafood," he says.

The Shangri-La group banned the delicacy in January last year in all 72 of its properties around the world. At that time, Mok and his team were tasked to come up with a range of alternatives. They experimented with lobster, abalone and bird's nest, and eventually came up with dishes that "didn't compromise on soup quality and perceived value". For that reason, no faux-fin substitutes were employed (based on gelatin or transparent vermicelli noodles).

The final selection also reflects Mok's creative quirks. On Shang Palace's à la carte menu is cream-enriched braised pumpkin soup with Alaskan crab and bird's nest, served in a whole petite pumpkin.

Lobster and pumpkin are one of his favourite pairings, so variations of this dish, one including scallops and prawns, are also available on other banquet menus. Mok says lobster and pumpkin marry well in colour and flavour - especially in their mutual sweetness - while the vegetable also allows him to deliver a more original presentation.

At Loong Toh Yuen, however, chicken dominates most soups on its banquet menus. The fine-dining Cantonese restaurant at heritage property Hullett House has never offered shark's fin. When the dish is traditionally served on Lunar New Year menus, Loong Toh Yuen's 11-course feast offers two options instead: double-boiled conch in chicken soup or braised chicken soup with bird's nest.

Cuisine Cuisine, with locations in Tsim Sha Tsui and Central, also uses chicken as the base for its premium soups for formal occasions. The modern Chinese restaurant hasn't banned shark's fin from its kitchens altogether, but offers alternatives in its 12-course green wedding menu. The meal begins with suckling pig with Yunnan ham, and sautéed prawns with macadamia nuts, followed by braised imperial bird's nest with minced chicken instead of shark's fin soup.

At Yee Tung Heen, shark's fin soup hasn't been served since February last year. In its place are bird's nest soup and fish maw, among others, but what differentiates this selection is the use of medicinal herbs such as ginseng and caterpillar fungus. All claim to possess various healing powers, according to traditional Chinese medicine. Matsutake mushrooms flavour the double-boiled fish maw and sea whelk soup. The wild forest ingredient is believed to have anti-cancer properties.

Diners may be less accustomed to the herb found in Yee Tung Heen's grandest Lunar New Year menu option (at HK$9,888 per table). Double-boiled pigeon with fish maw features caterpillar fungus (cordyceps sinensis), which is believed to boost energy and stimulate the immune system.

In contrast, The Banqueting House offers more conservative substitute dishes. A wedding dining specialist with locations in Kowloon Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui, it offers an alternative without shark but tasting identical to the original.

"Shark's fin does not have much taste. The taste of shark's fin soup mainly comes from the soup base, which in our recipe is made of chicken and Yunnan ham," explains Toby Kwan, marketing manager of the venue's parent company, LH Group. Preparing the replacement dishes in the same broth recipe means the restaurant can placate customers who consider substitutes a steep departure from tradition, by informing the diner that "the soup without shark's fin is not that different from shark's fin soup."

A larger difference between its regular and alternative menus is the use of sustainable seafood. The restaurant consulted WWF Hong Kong before arriving at the alternative menu, which abides by the conservation group's Sustainable Seafood Guide - an assessment of various marine species, fisheries and catch methods that are sustainably harvested. So the substitutes at The Banqueting House include braised abalone with bamboo pith and shredded chicken soup; the abalone caught in the wild from Australia.

The sustainable menu, introduced in 2010, is also cheaper. Kwan estimates the average price of wedding banquets in Hong Kong is HK$5,800 to HK$6,000 per table, whereas its alternative is HK$4,988 per table. Most of the requests for this feast are from young couples.

Despite such incentives, demand for the original delicacy still eclipses the alternatives by a large margin. "Shark's fin-free supporters are still a minority in Hong Kong," says Kwan. "The number of orders for our shark-free menu is about 5 per cent of our total number of wedding banquets. But [despite this] we believe this is an important step."