Fine line for 'sharks' in fishy practices

Editorial | Mary Ma 22 Dec 2017

It can be fascinating reading restaurant menus, for there is often a wealth of imagination to discover.

Popular dishes such as abalone fried rice, sweet corn grouper, and shark's fin soup are frequently served at a fraction of the price you would expect to pay. At cha chaan tengs, there are also the pineapple buns served hot with a thick slice of butter.

But there are legal traps in the menus too.

Recently, an eatery in Kwai Chung was caught selling its famous entree of abalone fried rice with the most essential ingredient - abalone - outrageously missing. Instead, a type of mollusc, or cheap shellfish, was the substitute.

The establishment was fined HK$5,000 for violating the Trade Descriptions Ordinance, that was amended in 2013 to make it an offense to sell anything other than what's described.

This week, prominent restaurant group Fulum found itself in similar legal hot water for serving sweet corn grouper dishes with no grouper - but catfish - at its branches in North Point, Mong Kok, Kwai Chung, Sha Tin, Tsuen Wan and Tuen Mun.

The chain was similarly accused of breaching the trade descriptions law.

Since the law was amended, there have been various cases involving similar breaches. In 2014, the Lin Heung Tea House in Central was caught selling roast duck as roast goose, and was slapped with an HK$8,000 fine.

The cases were mostly brought up for good reasons. Certainly, abalone, grouper and geese are a lot more precious than molluscs, catfish and duck.

While those wonderful names are misleading, it won't surprise me if customs officials act again in the near future to prosecute another restaurant for marketing soup as fish-maw, when deep-fried pig skin is used instead.

It shouldn't be that difficult to differentiate one from another. Ask any housewife and she can immediately tell you the difference, because she knows the cost of living today has climbed so much that it costs about HK$100 for a fresh grouper fillet about the size of a palm, while abalone is a luxury that common folks reserve for major festivals.

Customers aren't necessarily fooled when they're billed HK$88 for the fake dishes. Nonetheless, the cases help to raise a new perspective for discussion.

Delicacies are often crowned with beautiful names to allow a degree of imagination. So, a soup of vermicelli mixed with shredded meat is passed off as shark's fin soup. The creative name is inherited from the old days, when it was used as a kind of emotion compensation for those who couldn't afford the real McCoy.

The customers knew it was bogus, but still enjoyed the soup so much that it's now become part of the local culture.

So are the pineapple buns that don't even taste like pineapple. They're known as such due to the crispy crust that, with a bit of imagination, looks like pineapple.

There's always a fine line in the common sense that allows creativity, while consumers rights are protected.

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