Saturday, November 28, 2009

Abalone, Shark Fin and Bird's Nest - Not really all that good

Abalone, shark fin, and bird's nest soups are all way overrated.

For their last night in town I took my parents to Sumie, one of the nicer Japanese restaurants in Taipei. We all ordered different 7-course set menus, and overall the meal was delectable, with the fastidiously painstaking presentation and service that one would expect from a restaurant in this price range. It wasn't perfect, though - with 7 courses, there are bound to be some misses. One of them came in our first course, when my Dad and I were both served abalone soup.

Abalone is a mollusk that, like shark fin and bird's nest, is an extremely expensive ingredient and considered a delicacy in many different Asian cultures. If you've ever had one of these ingredients, it was probably in a soup, and probably at a meal in which the (Asian) host felt compelled to conspicuously advertise how much money he or she is spending - weddings (got to show the in-laws!), large family reunions (got to show the in-laws!), important business dinners (got to show the clients!), etc. The thing is, none of these three ingredients have any flavor of their own at all. The best thing that can be said about any of them is that much like potato, pasta, tofu, or crackers, their bland flavor makes them reasonably good at soaking up the flavor of whatever is around them. Now, I'm rather fond of tofu, crackers, and potato. They definitely fill an important role in composing a tasty soup. But they're also relatively cheap ingredients, unlike abalone, shark fin, or bird's nest.

Apologists for these ingredients usually assert that though they may be flavorless, they have unique textures which work well with flavorful dishes. To which I say: nonsense! Bird's nest is simply a thoroughly soaked cracker or crouton, and tofu of the right consistency is nearly indistinguishable from shark fin. As for abalone, it has the approximate consistency of rubber, so if you actually enjoy that sort of thing you can just drop some rubber into your soup. (Though I suppose octopus is a pretty close approximation too.) Yes, serving rubber in soup would be ridiculous. But it'd still be less ridiculous than using abalone, because at least you'd save quite a bit of cash.

There's a reason these vastly overpriced and utterly flavorless ingredients are pretty much only ever served in soup, people - all the other components that go into a rich, hearty broth work overtime to lend some flavor to the so-called "signature ingredient," which itself contributes nothing other than an additional zero or two to the end of the price. I'm confident that there is no such thing as a good shark fin, abalone, or bird's nest soup. There are simply good soups that happen to have shark fin, abalone, or bird's nest in them, and all of them would probably be much improved if you took out the obscenely expensive flavorless mass at their center and tossed in some tofu, tako, or crackers instead.

There's another reason abalone and its cousins in exorbitant blandlessness are often served in soup - in multi-course Asian meals, as in Western cooking, soup is an early course. The conspicuous extravagance of the soup advertises the cost of the entire meal and is intended to signal to the diner that all subsequent courses must be equally upscale.

At Sumie, where we had just ordered dinners that definitely fell within the potentially aneurysm-producing range, the restaurant no doubt placed abalone soup in front of us right away in hopes of assuaging any sticker shock. On me it had the opposite effect. The soup itself, aside from the rubbery mass of mollusk in the middle, was solid, if unexceptional. But I had started calculating how much of my check would be going to the soup - the soup - instead to the real meat of the meal, and it did not bode well.

Luckily, Sumie won me over with the second course, a truly delicious sashimi plate, followed by a solid third course for me (tempura) and a exquisite third course for my dad, which I sampled (grilled sea bass). Even so, after we left I remembered that the two real highlights of the meal - the sashimi and the sushi - were definitely both on the smaller side. I couldn't help but wonder how much larger the portions would have been if the chef had skipped the abalone and bought something actually tasty with that money instead.

Ultimately, these soups are culinary veblen goods - prized for their high price, and nothing more. Like designer handbags or Rolls-Royces, the mere fact of their high price lends them an exclusivity, and they actually would become less desirable if they were available more efficiently and cheaply.

Sumie delivered an extraordinary meal overall, and I would definitely go again at some point. But I've also had plenty of Asian meals that were utterly unremarkable, aside from the ostentatiously profligate soup course. Now that I'm living in Taiwan I know more truly "Asian" people, so to the one or two of you that can follow my English I beg of you this: I know it's tradition, but if you're hosting an important dinner, don't ever buy Bird's Nest, Shark Fin, or Abalone soup. Instead of spending money to impress me, spend the money on something I will actually enjoy eating instead.