Wobbly Soft-Shell Turtle Herbal Soup
By TianTianChi - Friday, Jul 05, 2013
Turtle meat is not only delicious, but it is also believed to be nutritious, especially good for blood circulation and virility when it is cooked with Chinese herbs. It is prized as a delicacy and tonic in many cultures including the West. Besides making soup, turtle meat can be braised (a reviving trend in Chinese Restaurants in Singapore), steamed and in some parts of Indonesia, made into grilled satay (sate penyu).
Freshwater soft-shell turtle is the species commonly used for cooking in Singapore. The primary sources are from Indonesia where they are caught wild but with strict export control and from China where they are bred in turtle farms.
Tan Ser Seng is one of our favourite turtle soup joints. What makes this place so special is their very restrained and balanced use of herbs. It complements the meat, removing any “exotic” odour, and creates a nourishing and delicious combination. The soup tastes sweet and rich, slightly herbal and not gamey at all as some might fear. Go for the claypot version (4 sizes from $22) which is more robust than the double boiled version (from $14).
Generally turtle meat is lean yet it can taste tender as chicken meat and as sweet as fish meat. However, the best part of the turtle, to an connoisseur has to be the wobbly, gelatinous yet crunchy soft shell from the carapace side (the Chinese call it the “skirt”), the part that looks like jelly when cooked. It is believed as the turtle grows; part of its nutrient is converted and condensed into this collagenous mass.
Another best part is the fat, which usually is bad for our health, but turtle fat is known to aid blood circulation. Whatever it does, it tasted sensationally smooth and buttery.
One of the biggest indulgences here must be the small marble shaped and sized golden yellow turtle eggs. The egg white somehow doesn’t solidify no matter how you cook it and it’s the same for the inside of the egg yolks too. Bite gently on it and the membrane will break oozing gloriously golden cream like lava and titillating the taste buds with smooth velvety sensation and savoury eggy flavour. Go easy on this though as the cholesterol level is very high.
We also noticed this little sauce container on the table which we happily drizzled onto the soup thinking it is Chinese wine. It is actually white vinegar, probably there for those fearing any gamey accents or to tame the rich meatiness. . It is just like adding black vinegar into sharks fin soup and actually enhances the flavour of the soup.
When you are there, don’t forget to order the toasty and moreish yam rice to go with the turtle soup. They also offer two versions of black chicken soup, the ginseng version and a codyceps version ($13 per serving). I supposed that is for accompanying friends who don’t handle turtle as well. They are menu stars on their own, but most customers do not come specifically for this. This restaurant has a history spanning more than half a century. Mr Tan Khar Seng, 62, has been in the business since 12 years old, helping out and learning the skill when his father started peddling Turtle soup at Orchard Road Car Park.
Mr Tan also said that it is getting harder to run this business because he insisted on using wild turtle from Indonesia. The supply is limited due to stricter wild-harvesting control and the price is always increasing. Chinese farmed turtles are too expensive and do not taste as good so this is not an option.
Succession was another concern, but a solution was at hand. Vivian, his daughter, felt that it is a pity to give up all the efforts and has few years ago joined the family business. Every day both she and husband Derrick will prepare and cook the fresh turtle meat themselves. This has to be done as early as 3am in the morning – to guard the family secret recipe. Perhaps it just might be that secret concoction that is the real winner. Vivian is constantly experimenting with different ingredients and wanting to introduce new non-turtle dishes. We certainly are looking forward to that day to find out.
Tan Ser Seng Herbs (Turtle) Restaurant 29 Lorong Bachok ( inside Geylang Lorong 21) Tel: 67483953 Hours: 11am-7.30pm (Closed on Thursdays)