The apprehension of Chinese poachers in our waters by the Philippine Coast Guard occurs so often that it does not readily make headline news. The last vessel captured yielded a cargo of turtles, and the sorry sight of these endangered creatures, some lying dead on their backs, would make almost anyone angry. But the contraband is an indication of a brisk trade not just in turtle shells but probably of their meat as well.
I first tasted turtle meat on Santa Cruz island, off Zamboanga, when I was a boy. All I can remember was that the meat was tough and the taste unremarkable. I do remember that the adventurous adults who tasted it told the weak of heart that it tasted like chicken. All strange meat always seems to taste like chicken, but I can assure you that turtle meat didn't taste like chicken at all.
Our turtle story today goes way beyond my childhood to Fr. Ignacio Francisco Alcina, SJ, who wrote a multivolume "Historia de las islas e indios de Bisayas" in 1668 that was translated from the original Spanish, edited, annotated and published as "History of the Bisayan People in the Philippine Islands" by Cantius J. Kobak, OFM, and my friend, the late Fray Lucio Gutierrez, OP. Turtles are mentioned in the second volume of Alcina's work that concerns the animals, birds, fish, snakes and other unusual reptiles in mid-17th century Visayas.
Pawikan was the generic term for sea turtles, but those of great size with a thin, transparent shell that could be made into ornaments and household objects were called magdarahik or daranawan . Turtles with thick shells were called olaniban while those that didn't grow very large were called pagong (the latter were taken for their meat because their shells were too thin to be of any use).
This was how Alcina described turtle meat:
"The flesh of all the turtles is equally good and is eaten with much relish. It is like beef and even after its death there are palpitations. I have seen it palpitate when being cooked and boiling. I have seen others, after the heads of the turtles were cut off and severed from the body, open and close their eyes. And if someone placed his finger in their mouths they would bite very hard. They do not have teeth or molars, but only something like a beak of a parrot. But very large and hard, which cuts anything even though it is very tough.
"Although the flesh of the turtles is commonly of good quality, nonetheless there are some of them that are poisonous and kill those who eat them. The experience these natives have is that when the turtle has only one intestine, they should let it alone and not eat its flesh because it is poisonous and will cause death. However, when it has all its intestines, they may eat it without fear or harm.