Is it an issue of cultural prejudice, cruelty,
conservation of the species or plain sentimentality?
Shark's fins are back in
the news as part of the East versus West battle over what is
appropriate to eat. Doubtless it will soon again be the turn of
dogs, monkeys, bats and pangolins to make their appearances in the
debate on Asian eating values.
The Disney Corporation
has succumbed to pressure, mostly coming from outside China, and has
taken shark's fin soup off the menus at the new Hong Kong
Disneyland. I have never quite understood the appeal of this
flavorless soup but it makes a regular appearance at Chinese
I am quite prepared to
believe that sharks - or at least several kinds of them - are
endangered and the catch should be stopped or regulated. What is
curious, however, is that little opprobrium seems to attach to
Australians when they eat shark (which they call flake) or indeed
when Britons buy it from their fish and chip shops in place of the
once cheap cod. There may be some evidence of "finning" - cutting
off the fins and leaving the body - but given the willingness of
Chinese and others to eat most of the creature in one form or
another, this seems unlikely to be common.
Indeed the fuss made
about shark's fins may be detracting from the much bigger issue of
overfishing of almost every species that is taking place in most
seas. Asian-owned fleets are largely but not solely to blame.
Korean and Thai vessels, as well as Russian and Spanish ships, have
been in the forefront of overfishing. Hong Kong owned, Latin
American registered vessels have been involved in illegal fishing of
the prized Patagonian toothfish. Might not focus on these issues
make more sense to conservationists than on a soup viewed as part of
an Asian culture?
As for whales, eaten in
Korea and Japan, the arguments of the opponents of allowing bigger
catches appear to vary between the threat to the survival of several
kinds of whale to the belief that the methods of catching them are
cruel to the purely sentimental. (These opponents say that whales
and dolphins are a superior kind of mammal deserving of protection
not accorded to pigs, cows and others.)
Focusing on the
scientific issues might help prevent this from becoming another East
versus West (minus the ferociously independent Norwegians) issue -
like the eating of dogs.
The dog question seems
almost entirely a cultural one. It may be man's most loyal friend,
but servility hardly justifies giving it the special protection not
accorded to what many would regard as more noble creatures, like
deer and horses, or more useful ones, like the plough-pulling water
Dog may not be the dish
of choice for most Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese or Filipinos any
more than whale is for most Japanese. But is it to be viewed with
horror and made illegal as is the sale of horsemeat in California?
Horse may no long be
found on many menus in France or Italy but it is still eaten often
in those places. In Japan, basashi - raw horsemeat - is prized as
superior to its beef equivalent.
Throughout central Asia
the horse is also a prized and useful possession. Is there horror
with horsemeat because of love of the animal? Or is it a
particularly Anglo-Saxon cultural trait deriving from Hengist and
Horsa, the horse-god warriors who were the first Saxons to arrive in
what is now England. They ruled my own home county, Kent, whose
symbol remains the horse.
As for pangolins,
civets, monkeys and other forest food viewed as delicacies in
southern China, Vietnam and throughout Asia, the argument against
hunting them must be that otherwise they would become extinct. Wild
animals may die violently in the East while in the West culture now
demands humane killing. But do they live humanely in pens and cages?
Meanwhile, the only
country in the world that can claim a modest amount of moral high
ground when it comes to eating is India, where perhaps 50 percent of
the population calls themselves vegetarian (though the definition
can vary) and where whole neighborhoods are being declared meat-free
Perhaps the rest of us
can learn to live with each others' cultural and religious flesh
eating habits and prejudices.