This post really is not for the squeamish nor the anthropopath, so if you are either or cannot guess its contents from the title and this photo, spare yourself and please do not click through.
Well I thought I should like to eat turtle, so I made the journey to Ueno and bought one from the very nice people at the basement market underneath Ame-yoko. The great mix of people – Chinese, Nigerian, Thai, Filipino, particoloured – and variety of niche and imported goods make it quite an unusual place here in Tokyo and I very much like it (especially with Yoshiike store also nearby). Whilst in history Britons, with their seafaring tradition, have relished the unfortunate oceanic green turtle – unfortunate only for tasting so good, and being rather easy to kill – here in Japan eating-turtle means Linnaeus’ Pelodiscus s. japonicus or in Japanese, suppon, the soft-shell turtle. I bought one that came in at about 2 pounds.
This job would require the heavy artillery, and I spent most of the morning sharpening my big deba knife to a shaving-edge.
There is a certain knack to inducing the turtle to stick its head out, at which point the unlucky beast rapidly graduates from reptilian university with a swift blow with the deba completely beheading it. At this point I learnt the virtue of wearing an apron, as my shirt and trowsers were spattered in a most gruesome fashion, and blood literally ran down the opposite wall of my kitchen. However, if Patrick O’Brian’s books taught me only one thing, it is that there is nothing for getting blood out of clothes but cold water. Anyway, disregarding the mess of my wardrobe and my kitchen, like an open-necked wineskin the beheaded turtle is then turned upside-down and the blood emptied into a bowl, a bowl that has some cold sake in it.
The sake is probably a hint, but you may guess why the blood is collected in this fashion (no, not for making black pudding). When stirred with rice wine, the blood does not coagulate and instead makes a surprising aperitif.
This is the gallbladder. It must be removed intact to stop it tainting the glorious turtle-meat and yellow fat (calipee). The urinary bladder likewise must be carefully teased out and discarded. Some people drink the gall mixed with wine, but I was still struggling to finish my half-pint of blood-wine and thought better of it; I wouldn’t want to spoil my appetite for the good stuff to come.
The first dish along was a pair of roasted turtle’s legs. Seasoned with just salt and grilled over a low flame they proved to be most delicious, complete with calipee attached. Some people say turtle tastes like chicken, but this does not do the worthy creature justice; it eats much better, far richer, more tender and not the slightest hint of animal-like or smelly strong tastes.
The legs are composed of a surprising amount of meat, and just these little curious bones were left.
The green stuff is a paste from west Japan called yuzu kosho, which is yuzu citrus pounded with raw green chillies. In a country with surprising few chilli-hot dishes in its national cuisine, this stuff is actually quite spicy and a wonderful relish for almost all dishes be they meat, fish or reptilian.
Anyway, stewed turtle is the main dish made from suppon, comprising a great number of mushrooms, sliced spring onions, silken tofu cut into chunks and a quantity of dark turtle meat, great gobbets of calipee, and the cartilage of the beast’s belly all simmered in a thick broth made from its bones. The taste is beyond this world, so rich and thick yet without the often gross unctuousness of lard or animal fat. One can only thank the unfortunate turtle for providing such a wonderful meal, and do it justice by not leaving a scrap behind in the stew-pot.