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Flushing eatery cooks unreal shark fin soup

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State legislation that could ban the sale of shark fins used in traditional Chinese soup is either bad for business, good for the environment or just not a big deal depending on who you talk to, but one Flushing restaurant has a recipe to serve the dish legally even if it is outlawed.

Happy Buddha, near the corner of 37th Avenue and Main Street, serves up vegetarian shark fin soup that lovers of the meal — considered auspicious in Chinese culture — would be hard-pressed to distinguish from the real deal, except by its price.

Shark fin is a highly expensive, mostly tasteless flap of cartilage that comes from the top dorsal fin of sharks around the world.

But it is most often eaten at wedding banquets, according to Peter How, president of the Asian American Restaurant Association, where a bowl for 10 people could run between $150 and $500. The price tag often translates to elegance, he said, which is why brides and grooms spare no expense to ensure it is on the menu.

Happy Buddha also has a small banquet area in the back of the restaurant, where owner Lina Lin said wedding parties dine on vegetarian shark fin soup for much less. A bowl for four people runs $12.

The veggie version consists of carrots, celery and various other vegetables along with vegetarian shredded pork and squid. Like its real counterpart, the key ingredient is the soup’s blandest. The vegetarian shark fin is made of a high-fiber collagen extracted from vegetables like green beans.

And it could be the only kind of shark fin soup left if legislation that is co-sponsored by state Assemblywoman Grace Meng (D-Flushing) passes.

Meng and other lawmakers consider the practice of severing shark fins inhumane, which was also the impetus for similar laws that already have passed in several other states, including California.

That is all fine with Lin, who also considers the way sharks are harvested for the traditional soup unduly cruel. She is proud of the vegetarian substitute. But other restaurants in the area could ruin their reputation by serving such a dish.

Since the taste of the fin is so bland, it is easy to imitate, which means diners are always suspicious of their meal’s authenticity when out for dinner, according to How, who in addition to being the president of the restaurant association is the head chef at a 400-seat Flushing banquet hall called Jade Asian Restaurant.

“We can’t serve [fake shark fin] or they won’t trust us the next time,” he said. “Even if you serve the real thing they will say it is fake.”

How’s restaurant has a reputation for serving the delicacy, and he said if the law is passed the banquet halls will suffer.

“It will absolutely hurt business,” he said. “Let’s say if some state still sells the shark fin, then people might go there.”

How already has a large customer base from New Jersey and Connecticut who make the trek to his wedding banquet hall and he said he would like to keep them coming.

The fin is also widely believed to be a boon to health and is sold either whole or ground into powder at herbal shops around Flushing.

But six scientists from the University of Miami published a paper Feb. 21 that argues that consuming shark fins could be linked to degenerative brain diseases.

“Sharks are known to bioaccumulate toxins that may pose health risks to consumers of shark products,” the report said, specifically referring to a neurotoxin called BMAA that has been linked to Alzheimer’s. “In Asia, shark fin soup is considered a delicacy, which drives a high consumer demand for this product. Our report suggests that human consumption of shark fins may pose a health risk for BMAA exposure”

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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Reader Feedback

Jenn from Aiken says:
Yea! A good sub for the real thing and no sharks were hurt!..Thank you, Ms. Lin, for doing this!
March 1, 2012, 8:58 pm
Paula from Yes says:
Thank you Happy Buddha restaurant for being ethical! Vegetarian Shark Fin soup...a good new option for those that want to save our seas!
March 1, 2012, 10:47 pm
Jeff from Jackson Heights says:
This is fantastic!! Congratulations to Ms. Lin for taking this bold step, I will definitely be frequenting her restaurant even more now!
March 2, 2012, 11:28 am

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