Shark Fin Soup
Created | Updated Jan 28, 2002
You will not see a bowl with a black triangle sticking out of it. This is a common Chinese delicacy which is responsible for reducing the shark population to a tenth of its original size. Yes, it really is shark in that bowl. All you need is that little dorsal fin from the shark, but they slaughter the whole shark to get it.
The waiter will bring a large steaming soup bowl to the table, then ladle out the stuff into small little individual bowls. The colour of the soup is a clear light brown, with what looks like thin long slivers with a round cross-section. It is also normally cooked with little delicious bits of crab-meat.
The little bowl of soup is normally eaten with pepper and vinegar, both of which are added to taste by the individual diners. Use as much pepper as you like, but it is very important that you do not use too much vinegar. There is a long complicated Chinese story to this which can be read below.
If you see someone use too much vinegar, gently tilt one of your eyebrows, and give a small, very small, slightly sardonic smile and say 'Taking so much vinegar?'. The rest of the table will laugh appreciatively at this Chinese insider joke. If you are not a Chinese, this will raise your status tremendously in the eyes of your Chinese hosts, as one who must be absolutely steeped in Chinese culture1.
The Long Complicated Chinese Story
Long ago in ancient China, there was an Emperor who had a Mandarin (a court official). This particular mandarin was so well-known for being hen-pecked that he was often called the Kumquat - a small bitter orange-type fruit - by the other Mandarins.
In a playful mood one day, the Monarch decided to make his Kumquat's life interesting. Knowing who wore the pants in that household, The Emperor summoned the official. He praised the Kumquat for his many years of faithful service, and offered the gift of a captured princess to be his concubine.
While it was the usual thing then for a man to have many wives, the poor man took one look at the nubile beautiful creature and knew his life would not be worth living if he were to accept the gift. Very properly he declared 'I'm not worthy!' and declined the gift.
The Emperor pretended to be angry, and summoned the wife to court. He insisted that the captured princess be accepted into the household of the Kumquat. The poor official still resisted.
Turning to the wife, the emperor gave her two choices. Either she accept the new concubine into her house, or she would have to die by drinking a bowl of poison. The matriarch swept the bowl of disguised vinegar to her lips and swallowed the whole lot.
Henceforth, the expression 'To take vinegar' was used to describe an overtly possessive spouse.