The taste of turtle meat and fat

The taste of turtle meat and fat

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.

"Some of [the turtles] are very fat and have three different kinds of fattiness. One is yellow and this they say is the one that grows at night when there is moon [light]. The other is white and grows by day, and [finally], the brown or black [which grows] at night when the moon cannot be seen. However they are not like in other animals because this fat does not melt under fire, but rather, when cooked, becomes harder."

Unfortunately, Alcina did not note down the Bisayan terms for these three different colors and types of turtle fat, because it reminded me of the tuna sashimi or maguro served in Japanese restaurants today. I presume that the tuna sashimi in Manila is from Gensan or Davao, which makes me wary of the quality; I would presume that the best, the premium, tuna never gets to us because these end up at auction in Tsukiji, the world-famous fish market in Tokyo. I'm afraid to think that our palates have been spoiled by familiarity with lower-grade tuna.

I was introduced to toro or tuna belly by the late Doreen Fernandez, who took me to my first kaiseki meal in a small Japanese restaurant off P. Burgos in Makati. Doreen widened my vocabulary that up until then limited the meanings of toro to bulls, bullfights, and live sex shows. Toro is tuna so rich in taste and texture that one could not have more than three slices without that cloying feeling (umay).

Years later, in Japan, I would learn that blue-fin tuna is the best of the lot. I remembered the stuffed tuna in the living room of the late National Artist and historian Carlos Quirino, who counted deep-sea fishing among his pastimes. Nobody seems to mind that the mascot and company logo of a popular Davao tuna restaurant is a dolphin, not a tuna.

There are different tuna cuts that go into sashimi or sushi. Akami is the red meat of blue-fin tuna. Chutoro or medium fatty tuna is found near the skin on the back or upper belly of the fish; it is lighter than akami. Otoro is the premium or extra fatty tuna that comes from the lowest part of the belly. It is the lightest in colour of the three, and melts in the mouth with an extremely intense creamy texture and taste. To differentiate between these cuts I would often order a maguro, chutoro and otoro and eat these in sequence, cleansing my palate in between with pickled ginger to heighten the experience.

Reading Alcina made me curious about the three different kinds of fat in turtle meat and whether these can be a culinary experience, too.

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