You’ve probably heard by now that the ban on foie gras in California has been lifted. Some local restaurants, notably new hot spot Terrine, have welcomed the fatty goose liver’s return with much fanfare by offering special foie gras items or entire foie tasting menus. The ban on foie spanned two and a half years after going into effect back in July 1, 2012.
Exactly one year after the foie gras ban commenced, selling another controversial delicacy became legally verboten in California—shark fin. Although there was an attempt to have this repealed last year, shark fin didn’t get its place back at the dinner table when the ban was upheld in U.S. District Court. The sale of shark fin remains illegal in the Golden State.
Nonetheless, evidence of this forbidden food is still found printed on menus around town at Chinese restaurants that haven’t quite gotten around to updating their list of offerings.
Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village in San Gabriel is one of these restaurants. As I flipped through the venue’s oversized, fashion-catalog-like menu, the Steamed Abalone with Shark Fin and Fish Maw in Broth leapt out from the page like Bruce the great white shark surging above sea level, as did the Steamed Leopard Coral Grouper in Shark’s Fin Soup. I casually inquired to the waiter about the dishes, and before I could even complete my sentence, he shut down my query, remarking that it is illegal to serve shark fin and that the menu hadn’t yet been revised. He explained this nicely, of course. Curiously, the menu’s cover had the year 2014 printed on it, even though shark fin had been banned since 2013.
Undeterred, I moved on to another item, “How’s the shark lip?”
“Very good,” he answered.
Remember: Using any other part of a shark is legal. Only the sale of fins are punishable by fines of up to $1,000 per violation. The unconscionable hunting practice of “finning” as the primary method of harvesting shark fins is what the law really was designed to halt.
Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village’s Braised Shark’s Lip with Abalone Sauce is nothing like shark’s fin soup in mouthfeel whatsoever. After all, the stringy, slippery, glass-noodle sort of texture is the main attraction of shark fin.
In contrast, the texture of shark lip compares more to braised beef tendon but gummier. Steeped in a viscous, gravy-rich, abalone sauce, shark lip is infused with the shellfish’s profound sweet and savory oceanic flavors. The only mellowing ally is the bowl of steamed rice before you.
This shark lip dish is likely to have originated in the Fujian province’s coastal region where a plethora of fish and other seafood are bountiful. Fujian cuisine, also known as Min cuisine, is renowned for its seafood as well as incredibly complex soups and stews, good for winter meals and this year’s Chinese New Year’s celebrations that will start on February 19.
Fujian’s most famous dish is a stew called “Buddha Jumps over the Wall,” which could very well be the root of shark lip as a delicacy. “Buddha Jumps over the Wall” can consist of more than 30 ingredients including shark lip, pork tendon, chicken, and quail eggs, and is allegedly so tempting and delicious that it can knock a vegetarian monk of the veggie wagon and have him hop over the wall into meatsville.
There are also recipes teaming up shark lip with braised pork. But shark lip clearly doesn’t have the same cachet as shark fin. Shark lip’s preparation is much less complicated and time-intensive, for starters. Plus, its gelatinous texture might be be off-putting for some.
The real question is: How do you feel about kissing a shark during your meal? Happy Valentine’s Day.