By Benjamin Cost
It can be all too easy to stick to your culinary comfort zone in Shanghai, be it KFC or gōngbǎo jīdīng. As a challenge to break these habits and avoid the rut, every few weeks Shanghaiist will explore one of the more intriguing options out of China’s endless array of curious cookery. Although bizarre to most Western palates, these oft-avoided edibles usually boast unique medicinal properties, nutritional benefits, and intriguing culinary histories. We’ll explore for you where they came from and where you can sample these rare eats for yourselves.
TURTLE (龟, guī) / SOFTSHELL TURTLE (甲鱼, jiǎyú)
Regions of use: China (all over), virtually worldwide
Tasted at: Xinxiangweilou (新湘味楼) // 825 Dingxi Road, near West Yan’an Road (定西路825号, 近延安西路) // Closest Metro Stop: West Yan’an Road (延安西路) Line 3/4
We expats tend to define “off the beaten palate” eats as either alienesque critters that inspire paralyzing phobias like spiders or, conversely, our closest companions such as dogs and primates. Turtle is one of those unique exotic eats that paradoxically spans both categories; proving itself an edible oddity not only due to its sometimes otherworldly looks, but also because of its worldwide status as a beloved, if lethargic pet. Ironically, many countries utilize these shelled slow-pokes to fill both their terrariums and their bellies, China proving no exception.
Few sources exist on the origins of turtle in Chinese gastronomy, but the reptile’s culinary characteristics have been recognized since the dawn of Chinese cooking – a case supported by the diverse and abundant turtle dishes which encompass most of China’s regions. The mountainous northern region of Huangshan describes an ancient Anhui recipe that calls for whole soft-shell turtle stewed over charcoal and coupled with garlic, ginger, and ham.
A more southern dish features pheasant, zaocys snake, and mountain turtle paired in soup with spare ribs, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and a smattering of herbs. The pheasant and snake represent the phoenix and the dragon, emblems of happiness and fortune in Chinese theology, while the turtle is said to imbue its consumers with its fabled longevity (a risqué Cantonese version of the dish, dubbed “Dragon, Tiger, and Phoenix Soup” substitutes the turtle with “tiger” – either domestic cat or in rare instances, wild civet!)
Turtles in traditional Chinese medicine
The turtle’s perceived life-lengthening properties have prompted a whole slew of Chinese medicinal turtle fare, among the most famous being turtle steamed with cordyceps. One of the more elaborate remedial recipes consists of turtle simmered in a translucent stock, hair vegetable (dried black moss from Gansu), and poached ping-pong-ball-shaped turtle eggs in a soup – a dish whose flavor reputedly evokes the woodlands. These soups are thought to alleviate menopausal symptoms, boost circulatory system and kidney function and of course, prolong one’s life. Tortoise plastron is also famously dried and sold in medicinal markets as a potent tonic.
Regardless of whether the turtle actually transfers such powers to humans through its consumption, it does contain a number of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Turtle also proves yet another miracle food that boasts roughly the same amount of protein (33g) as beef (one race in which it comes close to matching the hare) but doesn’t convert your arteries into cholesterol canals the way a t-bone would.
If you navigate a Shanghai wet market, you’ll invariably come across these flat, sluggish reptiles dazedly eyeing you from mesh sacks. And if you’ve ventured out to Shanghai’s central fish market on Zhenru lu you’ve inevitably stumbled upon an aquarium’s array of tasty testudines, from your petite pond-slider to the tank-like snapping turtle (an entree that would just as soon take a bite of you). But the two most common species you’ll encounter at Shanghai dining establishments are your hardshell and softshell turtles.
The hardshell variety, the most exalted of which is the wild Hunan mountain turtle, is simmered for approximately eight hours to tenderize its virtually impregnable shell. Even after cooking, you’re supposed to only slurp the broth, which is by this point infused with the turtle’s flavor. The hardshell’s lifespan of one hundred plus years make it a favorite among Shanghai’s old folks who hope to tack on a few extra years by imbibing its essence.
For those of you who’ve never witnessed a softshell in the scaled flesh, imagine the end result of sucking all the air out of a hardshell, and you’re just about there. With its flabby, deflated countenance and protruding snorkel-like snout, the softshell cuts quite the cartoony figure. However, it’s actually a remarkable reptile, able to extend its sinewy neck when upended, and use it as an organic vaulting pole to flip its body over and land surprisingly gracefully on its feet. In fact, the swifter the softshell rights itself, the more sought after its meat becomes, with the wild softshell species being the most touted due to its exceptional athleticism.
We opted for the softshell variety, hoping, for the sake of our teeth, that the softshell lived up to its name. The chosen location: Xinxiangweilou, Shanghai’s relatively anonymous epicenter for all things turtle. This turtle dining spot actually offers you a choice of two softshell options, the domesticated variety (188RMB) and the wild Dongting Lake softshell (whose price isn’t shown but it runs you about 432RMB). We chose to go wild. Reserve several hours in advance for either dish, as they both require a two-hour simmering period.
Whilst awaiting the arrival of the thoroughly “softened” softshell, squeamish diners might presume that a turtle dish couldn’t possibly conform to their exaggerated vision of a murky witches brew swimming with swamp scramblers.
They couldn’t be more wrong.
Not only is the turtle presented in a small cauldron brimming with its owns juices, but the shell bobs in the center like a prehistoric buoy. And if you stir your spoon along the vessel’s edge, a turtle foot will inevitably surface in all its gelatinous glory, toe-claws still attached. At this point, many an expat diner would likely happily escape and blockade themselves inside Munchies for the remainder of their Shanghai stay.
But all reluctance subsides with the first bowl of turtle broth, which does in fact invoke chicken stock, but with a richer, oakier character. After downing a few pints, we nibbled on the flaps that line the shell’s bony plate. Glutinous like a rice noodle fused with fish skin, the shell’s outer layer proves a textural tour-de-force and harbors a mildly fishy essence. The meat itself defies the broth’s traditional flavor, with dark, gamey morsels of meat which slide easily off the bone – far removed from the domesticated turtle’s white flesh (a discrepancy also found among wild and domesticated fowl). It’s this muscular wild meat that’s claimed to enhance the consumer’s physical prowess.
Despite the eating process itself, which kind’ve reminds you of dredging up remains from the bottom of a bog, turtle is one of the most multifaceted meals we’ve come across in Shanghai. No matter what kind of meatavore you claim to be, turtle will satiate your appetite, whether it be through its fish-skin-like shell covering, lean beefy flesh, or the broth, which tastes uncannily like chicken. And considering turtle’s wealth of health benefits, there’s really no excuse not to break out of your culinary “shell.”
More tips on cooking and cleaning turtle are provided in Ernest A. Liner’s acclaimed reptile and amphibian cookbook, The Culinary Herpetologist. Go here and then click the right arrow or scroll down the page until you reach the turtle section on pg. 235.
Also on Off the Beaten Palate: