Review: Shark's Fin Soup at Dubai's Hukama
I’m upset before I’ve even touched my food. Hukama at The Address Downtown Dubai, has got my reservation wrong. I’ve rocked up to this little Chinese gem for only the second time since it opened several years ago and I’m being told my table has been booked for the next day instead – but do I want a change?
As I angrily rip through the messages on my phone in an attempt to prove just how bad service in this city can be, I come a cropper. It turns out it’s my fault, and I’ve got the dates wrong. When I look up, deflated and apologetic, the smiling hostess has already worked her magic and found us a new table with views of the Burj Khalifa and is now waiting to usher us into a restaurant that thankfully seems almost exclusively patronised by people of Far Eastern origin.
Calmer now that we’re seated, I turn my attention to the fairly extensive menu. There’s three different set options, the most expensive a reassuring Dh888 (the figure eight is considered tremendously auspicious in China), but a nice entry-level number at Dh388. We decide to go a la carte instead, our choices helped along by the knowledgeable, attentive staff.
We start with a serving of Shanghai bamboo dumplings with spiced soy sauce (Dh58) and a portion of sun-dried orange beef (Dh78). The former is slightly chewy and rather delicate, in keeping with the culinary traditions of this particular province, but it is the latter that truly stands out, even through to the end of the meal. It’s a crisp but tender quick-fried delight, the orange marinade clearly having made its way deep into the beef, so it’s sweet, ever-so-slightly spicy and satisfyingly juicy.
Both come on plates decorated with pretty floral patterns created with the sauces used in the dishes.
This being Chinese New Year season, we’re almost duty bound to order a serving of Yee Sang, the traditional bright orange fish salad that heralds abundance, prosperity and vigour. While the dish, which popularised in Singapore around the middle of the last century, can use as many as 27 ingredients, we tuck into a scaled-down version featuring raw salmon, carrots, radish, nuts, fried noodles and crackers. The result is fresh, crisp, crunchy and a brightly coloured combination of sweet and sour flavours.
The Shark’s Fin Dilemma
Animal cruelty activists are probably going to mark me out for life with this one – but I had to try the shark’s fin soup. I’ve read horrified accounts of how sharks’ fins are sliced off and the creatures left to bleed to death in the ocean, and that this process, called finning, is one of the main reasons shark stocks are declining worldwide, prompted, in large part, by rising consumption of this delicacy in recent years in line with the rise of the Asian middle classes.
But despite being forewarned, I swallow my principles and give in to temptation, imperiously ordering a bowl of slow-cooked shark’s fin in golden broth. If this was a karmic test of some sort, my performance could only be classed as an epic fail. I daresay a stronger man than me would have simply turned the page and ordered something else.
The verdict? The shark’s fin itself seems to have no unique flavour of its own and its main property seems to be to impart the soup with a smooth, gelatinous texture. It is it’s cooked for several hours over a slow flame and seems to absorbs the flavour of the other ingredients in the soup, in this case, crab, delicate bamboo shoot and strong, earthy mushrooms. Is it delicious? Or do I like it simply because it is so hard to come by?
The high price of the soup (Dh260 per serving here in Dubai) means it is often merely a way of impressing guests, its long-held medicinal and aphrodisiac properties now proven to be nothing but myth. And despite my ecological crimes, I’m quietly pleased when the chef tells me dishes using the ingredient may soon be taken off the restaurant’s menu.
Certainly, the restaurant fares well enough on the strength of its other dishes as the main course proves.
First, though, we’ve got a half portion of Peking Duck (Dh298 for a full portion) to get through. Having eaten the original thing in Beijing last year, I didn’t think the Hukama would be able to match up – few others in the UAE have done so thus far. To my surprise, though, they acquit themselves admirably. Their pancakes are so thin, they’re almost translucent, which is excellent, because when rolled up, they put the focus firmly on the stellar duck.
While the plum sauce is ever so slightly floury, the contrasting textures of the meat – crispy skin with fatty underside and lean, dark meat – are an absolute delight. Atkins fans can just eat the duck – it’s superb on it’s own, too.
Inevitably, the rest of the meal is slightly overshadowed, although the dishes we’ve ordered do their best to hold their own.
The fried soft-shell crab with Sichuan pepper (Dh158) is greasy let down, really the only major disappointment of the night. The shell is so soft it’s barely there, but the oil is so strong, we’re convinced it would fare much better as a bar snack – especially with the kick provided by this legendary fiery pepper.
But the wok-fried ostrich with sha-cha sauce (Dh165) is a revelation. The meat itself is lean and surprisingly almost fork-tender, and the sauce, a blend of soybean oil, garlic, onions, chillis and dried shrimp that is similar to XO sauce, is savoury and mildly spicy.
We eat the lot with steamed pak choy in oyster sauce (Dh45), tiny crunchy bulbs that are beautifully presented.
After all that, we’ve no space for dessert, but after a quick cigarette break on the balcony overlooking the Burj Khalifa, we’re ready to give it a shot. Two things stand out on the menu, and unable to make a decision between hot and cold, we greedily ask for both.
The warm chocolate and chestnut cake with vanilla ice cream (Dh45) is your classic chocolate fondant, with a delightfully gooey centre that has me wondering whether the chef has cheated by popping a truffle into the centre. It’s rich and velvety nevertheless, although I can’t taste any chestnut. At the cold end, the chilled mango and pomelo soup with berries and sago pearls (Dh45) is packed with fruit, with the sago absorbing the extra sweetness, it isn’t overly diabetic, but is a delicious, refreshing end to the meal.
Hukama, at the Address Downtown Dubai, is open for dinner from 7pm every evening. Book at theaddress.com
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