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Soup it or fry it, the turtle’s been a hit at royal tables forever

"Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,

Waiting in a hot tureen!

Who for such dainties would not stoop?"

— Lewis Carroll in Alice and Wonderland

I love turtles and their cousins the tortoise, and just can not get my usually healthy disregard for sentimental, squeamish sensibility to accept them as dinner. As pets, they have been in my life for a very long time and individual idiosyncrasies marked their identities.

The Terrapins are obsessed about returning to a flowing river, during the monsoons and we often recued many animals from imminent suicide as they fearlessly 'walked' the Delhi roads. Be Quick My Star Tortoise would stand in front of the fridge when hungry. And then there was our resident Gollum with two horns (never did find out his species) who could have been the original mugger in a dark alley — so fierce was his demeanour that all the other creatures in the large menagerie we had, would maintain a healthy distance from him.

The highlight of their day was to be greeted by my aunt — a Vishnu devotee, with a loving Namaskar and be fed their special delicacies (she had her cook prepare for them). Be Quick was regularly offered, Foie Grass, a great favourite of his. Very often I would look at them with my culinary eye and think — soup, stir- fry or grilled? Or with a materialistic eye — tortoise shell frames or cigarette holder? I would quickly banish the Ghoul who resided in me and appease the passing angel by touching wood!

The tortoise, despite being a recurring symbol of prosperity and longevity in many of the ancient cultures, carried forward to this day in Feng Shui and Vastu, has been determinedly hunted for its food all around the world. The human greed has no boundaries and many of the more edible species are now extinct or on the verge. And several edible varieties have become rare and are banned from being harvested in almost all the countries where once they resided in great numbers. The few exceptions to the protectionist policy are the chief suppliers of this gastronomic curiosity.

A great favourite of the Victorians, the turtle soup was a must at Queen Victoria and her Consort Prince Albert's Christmas table. Was it really so delicious a fare or just a gastronomic exotica is hard to tell — not knowing the Victorians, or the European nobilities taste, or a need to advance their status symbolically through these rare delicacies. The green turtle (the most sought after) known as such because of it greenish fat was imported alive from the Caribbean. It had to be kept in large tubs of fresh water at considerable expense on the long journey back home to England and other European countries. Many hundred tonnes of live turtles travelled annually just to become dinner. Long journey, alas a short life! Many years prior to its haute cuisine status, it was caught and eaten regularly as a source of fresh meat and protein by European explorers and the pirates. Most often cooked it as a Stew.

The most sought-after recipes however where the ones brought back from West Indies, the first to be generously circulated was by Richard Bradley (1732); it was given to him by a lady in Barbados on how to dress the turtle as a centre piece on the dining table. The presentation was often very complicated and exquisite. It was also vey stylish to serve the soup in the shell. Across the Atlantic, turtle meat in all forms was a favourite of President William Howard Tafts, who had a special chef dedicated to cooking turtles ensconced in the presidential kitchens. Turtle soup was regularly served on the celebratory July fourth dinners. He was a great gastronomic who had to have a tailor made bed to accommodate his girth!

The orients, however, preferred the soft shell turtle as the hard back turtle featured too often in their myths — a common one being that the Earth is supported on the back of the turtle. Taking off from the myth of Lord Vishnu in his second avatar — Kurma, lending his back for the collaborative venture between the Gods and the Asuaras to churn the cosmic ocean to obtain Amrita — the elixir of life. However, it has not deterred the Chinese from using the hard back turtle to make Guilinggao — 'turtle jelly'. Or their neighbours, the Indian fisherman and hill tribals whose main source of protein are the fresh water turtles and their eggs.

The Orients love it as a stir-fry, grilled, marinated in a sweet sauce, stewed with almonds. Desired weight is 10 pounds and more, as it needs to be well padded in its fat. It was believed that since the blood of the turtle, even those that are alive, is cold, the turtle is a true fish and can be eaten without qualm in days of abstinence! In India, it never did become a gastronomic novelty among the elite. However, the introduction of mechanised fishing and fresh markets almost sealed the fate of many of these species before a not so effectual ban was legislated.

Hysterically sought after by wannabe hostesses in Victorian England, those who could not afford the authentic fare had to settle for the creativity of the British chef who invented the 'mock turtle soup'. Apart from the jelly, it is one of the few British recipes to be imported into France from England. Made from calf's head and other leftover 'waste' pieces, flavoured by many cheaper vegetables and garden herbs, it was a popular alternative to imported expensive turtles, until the tinned Turtle Campbell soup adorned the shelves in grocery stores. The early immigrants were thrilled to see an abundance of turtles including the green turtle and the hawksbill turtle on the shores of the New World. Although, the turtle or tortoise is among the scared symbols of the Native Americans, President Abraham Lincoln, known for his thrift, introduced the mock turtle soup at his inaugural dinner.

So aptly described by the Queen in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:

Then the Queen left off, quite of breath, and said to Alice, "have you seen the Mock Turtle yet?"

"No" said Alice "I don't even know what a Mock Turtle is"

"It's the thing Mock Turtle soup is made from," said the Queen.

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