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Turtle Means Longevity
Food in History
Winter Volume: 2004 Issue: 11(4) page(s): 5, 8, 9, and 26
Considered a favorite food in ancient times as well as a sacred creature then, turtles were loved and respected as, among other things, emblems of longevity. So beloved were they, they were topics mentioned in almost every writing. One well-known poem, speaking to the deceased, tries to entice the dearly departed to return to earth. It says: Indulge your appetite with fresh turtles and succulent chickens. Turtle meat and shell were popular in ancient times as food, as medicine, and as predictors of the future. A few people continue to use them for medicinal purposes and for predicting the future, while most others just like to eat them, especially on special occasions.
Also respected were turtle shells, called 'carapaces,' as they were used as tools of divination. Some people consider the turtle as the origin of or first place for Chinese written characters. No wonder they were and are revered, these animals of the Cheloniidae and Dermochelyidae zoological families.
There are three main turtle groups used for food. There is the Eretmochelys imbricata or hawksbill sea turtle; its shell is best known as a tortoise shell. The green turtle or Chelonia mydasi is considered best for eating, and the leatherback or Dermochelys coriacea which are considered laying the very best turtle eggs. These three and many other turtle species are eaten and they are used for other purposes.
Turtles are found worldwide in two major locations and there are many different types of them. One location is in the Indo-Pacific region where they mostly inhabit tropical and sub-tropical waters. Others are found in the Atlantic. Turtles in either location can be smaller than an inch in diameter to more than sixty inches or more across the shell. Their weights vary from a mere ounce to more than a thousand pounds. Exceptionally large ones are, however, considered rare these days.
Walk down aisles in larger Asian markets, usually near the fish and seafood section, and note woven baskets loaded with small-to-medium, and medium-size turtles. A few markets may carry larger ones, but that is unusual. Some countries forbid gathering turtles, others prohibit selling them because they consider them protected species when found in the wild. Worry not about those for sale because most were raised on turtle farms. This type of farming is a viable economic industry in Taiwan and China, thousands are raised and sold, most with little chance to grow very big.
For a turtle to grow more than a foot in diameter takes a really long time. How long? A shell two feet across is home to a turtle usually more than fifty years old. Most turtle shells are hard, they are replaced, made by the turtle itself, several times as they grow. Finding an empty one on the beach, while unusual, is possible.
Often called armored fish, the armor or shells are respected and used for divination. About 600 BCE, in The Book of Documents or Shi Qing, they wrote of a feast with roasted fresh-water soft-shelled turtles. They were served with fish to some visiting dignitaries. At that event, they used the shells, called daimaoke, to tell these honored guests of things yet to come. The ones used in this instance were probably gigantic. An early tale of another special event said they weighed hundreds of jin. A jin is a Chinese weight of seventeen ounces.
Turtles then and now were known as hai gui or kuei, also jia yu. The Chinese eat soft or hard-shelled turtles, the latter preferred by some while others prefer the meat of those from the turtle when it is with soft-shell. Most people do not make distinctions between those with or without the armor or shell. Nor do they know if the one they are eating or ate is turtle or tortoise.
With respect to the latter, animal experts do know differences and they consider those living in the water to be turtles, those living on land, they call tortoises. Many, but not all Chinese, might make these distinctions, and if they do, they might call the tortoise wu gui. Some Chinese even differentiate among those that are real and those that are mythical. Words for these and for turtle or tortoise vary from region to region and dialect to dialect. In this article, all are referred to as turtle, even though some would consider that technically incorrect.
Appreciation of live turtles probably dates back to somewhere during or just after Neolithic times. Certainly before and during Shang Dynasty times, all kinds of turtles were eaten; and the Shang was between the eighteenth and the twelfth centuries BCE. During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE), turtles were very important. That is known because turtle shells and other parts were found in a Mawantu Han tomb known as the 'Number One Han Tomb.' Others have since been found in a few other tombs.
Because this animal is believed to live the longest, no wonder the Chinese associate it with longevity and honor it. In addition to this association, they consider it one of four super-intelligent animals, and believe it controls the four compass points and governs the one for north. With such importance, there is little wonder that the meat of this animal is considered pu, which means it is a strengthening food.
The Book of Rites speaks of the turtle and advises that young turtles not suitable for culinary purposes. Later in the Yuan Dynasty (1279 - 1368 CE), turtle soup was recommended but only if the turtle was not too large. Any size turtle can be used for divination, that is for predicting the future, and for that purpose, bigger is better. This use is as ancient as is consumption of their meat. When used as predictors, the shell were heated, the shape, number, and length of the cracks determining the likelihood of some event, such as the next rain taking place. Shells were also used for recording events. As such, they were commonly known as 'oracle bones.'
The Chinese believe turtles are magical, symbolic of strength, and endurance, and of longevity. Imperial families revered them and their subjects followed their lead. The picture on the cover is most often found as common decorations at burial sites; it is called a 'steele,' the turtle holding up the memorial tablet marking a grave site. Turtle motifs are found on funeral clothes, particularly of the wealthy, and on the clothes of royal rulers when laid to rest.
Today, cakes of flour and sugar are made in the shape of turtles. These creations can be found for sale near temples, especially on festival occasions. Bought there or at bakeries, they are also taken to family grave-sites, and they are placed in front of ancestor tablets at home.
In floklore, not everything about the turtle is positive. The head of the turtle appears to be a phallic design, so the word turtle can have obscene connotations. In addition, because some believe that turtles mate with snakes, when they want to hurl an insult, they call a person a 'turtle egg.' Doing so, they really mean and are saying that the person is 'a bastard.'
Not all is good or bad about turtles. On the good side, they can signify three important things, long life already mentioned, and peace, and prosperity. They are a common motif in rituals, particularly on festival days that honor one's ancestors. One modern emblematic use of the turtle is on Lantern festival Day at Penghu Temple in Taiwan. On this fifteenth day of the first lunar month, they celebrate Qigui at this site. To them, Qi means ‘appeal for’ and gui means ‘turtle.’ So on this holiday at that temple people end their New Year festivities praying for the three good things, for good fortune in the coming year, and for their ancestors.
The Chinese word for ‘turtle’ and the word for ‘return’ or ‘bring in’ sound alike and are called homonyms. They use this homonymic when praying to mean to bring prosperity to their entire household and family. These wishes and prayers for what the turtle signifies, and eating things made of or to look like turtles, are particularly popular in Fukien and in the Kiangsu province, as well as in Taiwan and Hong Kong. They are less popular but still used, eaten, and revered elsewhere in China.
The Chinese consider the turtle a strong-flavored food, and many people prefer eating the green sea and hawksbill turtle alone, that is not mixed with other foods. That said, there are still many recipes that use turtle along with other foods in a single dish.
Aside from eating turtle meat, the Chinese also eat turtle eggs. They are found deposited in sand on beaches. Turtle eggs are laid once every two or three years, and are put down in batches from three to three thousand. The eggs are round and have a thin skin that does not get hard as do eggs from birds. Many turtles lay their eggs as they walk up or down the beach. Predators and people find and remove them before they can hatch and wend their own way back to the water.
When cooking these eggs, which some believe have aphrodisiac qualities, the white or albumin does not set as do the whites of almost all avian creatures. Turtle egg use is not new; in ancient China they used them fresh and preserved. These eggs have a higher fat content than either chicken or duck eggs, and they have almost no white, that is no albumen. They are adored because the Chinese believed they have aphrodisiac qualities. They like them eaten alone and when mixed with turtle meat in soups and stews. We have never eaten any, but the Chinese we have spoken to say they adore them for their flavor. We have never had any because they are rarely found in the marketplace. Turtle meat is often long-cooked to make the broth strong and rich; this is done to reduce their essence. How the Chinese cook turtle eggs is open to question because no recipe for them was located other than advise to simply boil them.
The Chinese not only cook live turtles, they make turtle cakes called fang pian and like them strong, as they like their turtle stews. In this case, they mean extra rich to mimic the high fat content of turtle eggs. As bakery items, they frequently have added ingredients beyond flour and sugar. Many add fat of one sort or another, chopped up wheat and/or rice noodles, crushed cookies, preserved dates, gelatin, and various candies.
Not all Chinese like something added even to the effigy of a turtle. At one temple, we were not surprised to find these added items served separately. At another festival location, flour-sugar turtles were colored red with red glutinous rice wine residue and some sort of fat. There they had chopped pieces of noodles, high-fat cookies, candies, dates and whatever mixed in. They can best be referred to as true sugar-flour-fat-turtle-pig-outs.
Besides use as holiday cakes, and real turtle meat in soups and stews, the Chinese believe that turtle, shell and all, has medicinal value. When ground, the shell is made into a decoction thought to nourish yin, subdue yang, reduce cancerous masses and nodules, and reduce fever due to constipation.
In traditional Chinese medicinal beliefs, soft-shell turtles are believed salty and slightly cold. The Divine Husband’s Classic Materia Medica indicates pregnant women should not eat them. At a dinner party in Hong Kong some years ago, a chap with a slight fever said he wanted no turtle soup (nor clams nor shrimp) as his medical practitioner said only eat these when you are totally healthy. He and the literature consider turtle a fine food for children, the elderly, and healthy folk; not for a sicky, as he described himself.
Very few restaurants have turtle on their menus. Even though missing, they are willing to and do include them as a banquet selection. This omission of turtle is not in Singapore’s Chinatown area where many restaurants do have and feature turtle. At one such restaurant, Ocean King’s House 282 South Bridge Road, Phone 372-1246, they feature and only serve turtle dishes and foods to round out a turtle meal. This eatery, on the Sago Street corner opposite the Maxwell Food Centre, has a secondary name: 'House of Turtle Specialities.'
Do not do as we did and try to eat there on a Sunday when they are locked shut. When we returned the next day, we ordered, adored, and devoured their Special Set Meal for three to five persons. More than we really should eat, nonetheless, we polished off all the Turtle Steamboat which is a soup of sorts, and all the Braised Turtle Leg in Claypot which was a turtle stew. The vegetables served with these two dishes were overcooked, but who had room for them? Not the two of us. The white rice, the dessert rice concoction, and the beverage, a home-made barley drink, all went well with the main dishes and we left over nada of these. The next morning, we went back for a late breakfast of Turtle Congee and made empty there, too.
For those who want to try their hand at cooking a turtle dish, ask the fish folk in the market to clean the flesh and cut it into pieces. A fifth century recipe advises to simmer turtle for three to four hours with chicken, Chinese mushrooms, longans, and wolfberries. That advice holds for today. Another more northern recipe of the same period or a hundred or so years later, says to add lamb to the turtle along with ginger, onions, wine, and rice. One summer, in Jinan in the Shandong province, a culinary school chef made a dish and served it with firmly beaten egg whites shaped like lovebirds atop. It was our anniversary.
As turtles are said to increase longevity, reduce heart palpitations, help avoid insomnia, and cure wounds, try making a soup or stew of your own. Below are two simple and delicious turtle dishes, and others a mite more complicated, but worth the effort. We wish you a long and healthy life as you indulge in any or all of them.
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