Wednesday, November 10, 2010


There are a number of edible substances much beloved by the Chinese and by nearly no one else. It's a textural thing - most waspy Wasps aren't much into toothsome qualities, as proven by their very Anglo appreciation for such inedible substances as boiled-to-death vegetables and overcooked chicken. The pleasantly mucilaginous mouth-feel of some foods has unfortunate associations for waspy Wasps.

A bit sad, really. There is so much good to eat that y'all really ought to explore.
But on the other hand, if you did do so, there would be far less to go around. So don't

Unless you're reading this.

In which case go ape.


Bird's Nest is used in both savoury soups and sweet dessert-type soups, and is considered excellent for women. It is thought to be tonifying, especially to the delicate feminine tissues, and also good for the skin. Consequently cheaper grades of bird's nest show up in a number of patent preparations, usually in unimpressive quantity at extraordinary price. Like many such gelatinous substances there are substitutes which are just as healthy that don't cost nearly as much.
When used in cooking, the taste is very mild and unobjectionable. When employed as part of an ostentation-feast, more flavoursome ingredients are often added. The result is quite pleasant.
Soaking time before use: less than an hour. It absorbs water enormously.


This is the dried body of a Holothuroid slug. For any number of reasons this is believed to be good for male virility and potency - you can probably figure out why, and we need not go there. Culinarily its main appeal is the capacity to soak up flavour from the other ingredients used in the dish. Texturally it is not at all unloveable either. Like with bird's nest, such ingredients as Chinese ham, wood ears, black mushroom, and chicken stock are used to oomph it up.
In my opinion the result is far better than bird's nest. May have something to do with my regard for my Johnson, but I doubt it.
Soaking time before use: Several days. After the first boil-up and simmering, it is rinsed and cleaned thoroughly, then resoaked in several changes of water to rehydrate.


Sharkfin is the be-all and end-all of luxury, and quite the most expensive of the three. And in some ways, it really is worth it. The textural effect is quite interesting - strands of protein-rich cartilage reduced to easily eaten toothsomeness. Nutritionally its value is mainly that it is extraordinarily high in protein (up to 80%), low in fat. Yes, like all expensive slimy ingredients, it is alleged to be good for your testicles or ovaries, or whatever else is connected to your squidgies. Pay that no mind.
Soaking time before use: Several days. The dried fin is first soaked for two or three day in several changes of water, before being simmered for a few hours on low heat with a little ginger and scallion. It is taken out, rinsed to cool, and the skin is removed as well as the bony bit down the centre. Then it is simmered again for three hours in clean water or stock, with ginger and scallion, drained and rinsed.... and simmered AGAIN for three hours in clean water or stock, with ginger and scallion. All soaking and simmering liquid is, of course, thrown out. After this, it is ready for its final precook: stock, ricewine, ginger and scallion. About an hour. Rinse, drain. And now it is finally ready for use.

I know what you're thinking..... "why", you are asking yourself, "all this fuss? Why even bother?"


6 - 8 oz Sharkfin, ready for use.
4 - 6 Cups superior stock or clear broth (高湯 - ko tong).
Quarter cup Cantonese roast duck (燒鴨 - siu ngaap), boned and shredded.
Quarter cup soaked trimmed sliced black mushroom (香菇 - heung gu).
Quarter cup whole shelled shrimp.
Quarter cup chopped baby bokchoi(小白菜 - siu pak tsoi).
4 Tbs Sherry.
2 Tbs Soy Sauce.
2 Tbs Cornstarch, mixed with equal amount water.
Ginger, two or three slices.
Scallion, two or three stems, in two or three inch pieces.
Ground white pepper, sesame oil, finely minced scallion, Tabasco.

Heat about three TBS oil in a wok. Add the ginger slices and the scallion pieces. Whack around briefly, and before the scallion burns remove it, followed by the ginger slices. This 'tempers' the oil.

Now pour in the stock, sherry, and soy sauce, taking care not to splash or burn yourself. Bring to a boil, turn low to simmer. Add the shark fin, followed by the roast duck, black mushrooms, and shrimp. Add the bokchoi, stir in the cornstarch to thicken, and adjust taste with ground white pepper, a delicate drizzle of sesame oil, a few drops Tabasco. Garnish with the minced scallion and serve.

I probably should mention at this point that this is NOT the standard shark fin soup, nor even, strictly speaking, a traditional treatment. You see, I have used both roast duck and baby bokchoi. The first because I love the added taste, the second because of the visual appeal and the texture.

There are in fact many ways of presenting sharkfin. Some are more luxurious than others.
You will probably also enjoy these three:
蟹肉扒翅 - 'Crab Meat Clutched Fin' (hai yiuk pa chi): Braised sharkfin with crab meat sauce in thick soup. A simple classic preparation.
錦繡海上鮮 - 'Brocade Embroidery Upon Ocean Freshness' (gam sau hoi seung sien): Sharkfin in assorted seafood soup with fish meat, crab, shrimp, clams, bamboo shoots, black mushrooms, and one whole lot of wonderful stuff.
通天排翅 - 'Connect to Heaven Arrayed Fin' (tong tien paai chi): Cleaned sharkfin stewed entire, decanted into a shallow bowl and laved with a rich brown sauce. The fin strands are aligned, and bent over gracefully because of the softness after cooking. This is a beloved Pekingese dish, by the way.


Why should you prepare sharkfin soup yourself instead of simply ordering it at a restaurant?

Firstly, it is a bit expensive. Most restaurants offer it at anywhere from twenty dollars per bowl (rare) to upwards of a hundred dollars per bowl in very fancy (i.e.: pretentious) places.
If you make it yourself, it is more affordable by much more than half, and the noise of the other diners (熱熱鬧鬧 - yityitnaunau) won't distract you.

Secondly, can you think of anything more suitable for Valentine's Day? Sharkfin soup, perfectly prepared. Far better than chocolates!
There you'll be, just the two of you ......... you'll be drinking in her lively brown eyes, pale ivory skin, dark dark hair. Glimmering candlelight, sparkling champagne flutes, fine china, damask. Just the two of you and a tureen of sharkfin soup. A soft little hand lifts a porcelain spoon......

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.


Tzipporah said...

Isn't sharkfin soup a problem b/c of endangered shark populations?

The back of the hill said...

Yes, it is. But that problem is being dealt with, and will probably be solved. Certain shark populations are not even slightly endangered, but anything in South-East Asian seas, shark or not, is pretty much hosed by overfishing and human greed anyway.

As it is, the high price of sharkfin prevents many people from actually having it with any frequency – and the economic crisis has really put a crimp on conspicuous consumption for the middle classes. The market has pretty much collapsed, but the price is being more or less maintained (it keeps in a dry state for years).
In direct consequence of which, existing stocks of dried sharkfin are sufficient (for the time being), and harvesting has gone down considerably.

Besides, there are "substitutes". Canned sharkfin soup is actually made with mungbean flour thread instead.
Which is just one of the many not-quite-kosher sharkfin products. There is much more fake out there than real. But all are still sold at high price.

Given that there is great inventivity in the manufacture of fake sharksfin, it makes more sense to make your own soup – truth in advertising doesn’t hold for restaurant menus.

Steffy said...

Thank you so much! I just love sharkfin soup, I’ve always wanted to know how to make it!

chinese mushrooms said...

Why not try Chinese mushrooms? You can have it with your friend rice every morning. Zhu ling, for example, is healthy, it is traditionally used as a potent antibiotic and anti-tumor remedy, as well as a diuretic and to treat urinary tract infections.

The back of the hill said...

My dear "Chinese mushrooms",

Normally I do not publish comments which are advertisements, however you bring up an interesting subject and product. My readers might be interested.

Lingchee (靈芝) and Jyuling (豬苓) are fairly standard members of the Chinese pharmacopeia, and along with Hosouwu (何首烏) et autres can be worthwhile additions to one's diet.
A book that gives a good introduction to the subject is Ron Teeguarden's Chinese Tonic Herbs. Yes, he writes like a convert. Which I suppose he is. Nevertheless, his book is quite readable and informative.

Most Chinese tonic herbs, and most Chinese medicinal herbs in general, can be researched on the internet. Wikipedia is always a good starting point, but you should also look up the professional literature, which is where cross-referencing the scientific name becomes important - for which, see Wikipedia.

The back of the hill said...

Please note - new shark fin post:

Mmmm, delicious shark fin!

Search This Blog


Objectively, the "good old days" were not very long ago. And they weren't that good. Obama got elected in 2008. What was parti...