Lovers of tradition and Chinese culture said it would never happen, but last week, the legislature in Beijing banned the serving of the highly venerated shark fin soup.
The glutinous concoction has long been the pricey, must-serve centerpiece of lavish government gatherings, business banquets and wedding parties.
The vote by the National People’s Congress, China’s supreme power, surprised many who worry that little attention is paid to environmental concerns, such as the estimated 77 million sharks that are finned and left to die each year.
As The Food Watchdog reported in a lengthy investigative piece last year, the most powerful warrior in the battle to outlaw the soup in his native country was Chinese basketball star Yao Ming. Several skillfully produced videos and ads in magazines and on bus cards were very effective in informing the Chinese public of the horrors of finning.
But a friend in Hong Kong tells me that the banning of the costly soup has less to do with the save-the-shark movement than it does with a government austerity program. The culinary change is seen by many as a money-saving effort to defuse burgeoning public anger at how much Chinese bureaucrats spend entertaining themselves.
My friend sent me a clip from Xinhua, the state-run news agency, saying there is also a government crackdown on the serving of the very costly, quasi-official “national liquor” Maotai at official functions.
While likened to paint remover by some, the notorious Maotai and its 53 percent alcohol content is made from fermented sorghum. At $314 a bottle on the cheap end and more than a million for a vintage bottle of the brew, it is no longer approved for bureaucratic boozing.
China is not alone at taking aim at shark-fin soup. California, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon and Guam have banned the import and use of shark fins, and petition drives are being mounted in Idaho, Florida and against New York restaurants.
Efforts against the finning are also underway among the European Union and its 27 countries; Japan; Mexico; Australia; the Canadian cities of Victoria and Vancouver; Chile; Peru; the Bahamas; South Africa, and Malaysia.
However, when I went back and checked with the 14 restaurants in five states and one province where I was told last year that they would no longer serve the special soup, touted for its gelatinous mouthfeel, it looked like sharks were still endangered.
Eleven eateries said it was still available and listed on their menu. Three refused to answer the question over the phone.