Copyright – The International Herald Tribune
FRIDAY, JULY 1, 2005
HONG KONG 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 banquets.
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.
Japanese, Taiwanese, 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 buffaloes.
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 zones.
Perhaps the rest of us can learn to live with each others’ cultural and religious flesh eating habits and prejudices.