Genuine shark fin soup or stew is made with shark fins obtained from any of a variety of shark species. Raw shark fins are processed by first removing the skin, trimming them to shape, and thoroughly drying them. They may be bleached with hydrogen peroxide before drying to make their colour more appealing. Shark fins are the cartilaginous pectoral and dorsal fins of a shark. Sharks' fins are sold in two forms: frozen and dried. Both need to be softened before they can be used to prepare soup. The frozen form is ready to use as it has been prepared and therefore only requires about an hour of soaking. There are two types of the dried form, skinned (shredded) and whole, which require more preparation.
Shark fins, in common with other costly east Asian delicacies such as Bird's nest soup and sea cucumber, have very little flavor of their own. Their appeal lies more in their texture and their ability to absorb flavors from other soup ingredients, and also for the simple fact of their expense and supposed "rarity", as with many luxury goods.
There is an imitation version that is usually sold in cans that may be labelled as shark fin soup; it sells for around USD$1.50 per bowl and does not contain shark fins, but is instead made of mung bean vermicelli shaped to resemble shark fins. It is not equivalent to genuine shark fin soup in either texture or colour. It is commonly served in chicken broth, with mushrooms and pork to enhance the texture and taste.
Shark fin soup is a popular delicacy in China, and is eaten in Chinese restaurants around the world. A survey carried out in China in 2006 by WildAid and the Chinese Wildlife Conservation Association found that 35% of participants said they had consumed shark fin soup in the last year, while 83% of participants in an online survey conducted by the World Wide Fund for Nature, said that they had consumed shark fin soup at some time. In Hong Kong restaurants, where the market has traditionally been strong, demand from Hong Kong natives has reportedly dropped, but this has been more than balanced by an increase in demand from the Chinese mainland, as the economic growth of China has put this expensive delicacy within the reach of a growing middle class. Based on information gathered from the Hong Kong trade in fins, the market is estimated to be growing by 5% a year. The high price of the soup means that is often used as a way to impress guests or at celebrations, 58% of those questioned in the WWF survey said they ate the soup at a celebration or gathering.
A third of all fins imported to Hong Kong come from Europe. Spain is by far the largest supplier, providing between 2000 and 5000 metric tonnes a year. Norway supplies 39 metric tonnes, but Britain, France, Portugal and Italy are also major suppliers. Hong Kong handles at least 50% and possibly up to 80% of the world trade in shark fin, with the major suppliers being Europe, Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, United States, Yemen, India, Japan, and Mexico.