“Killing a live animal is not something everyone likes to see,” says Chef Nobu Yamazaki of Washington, DC’s Sushi Taro after calmly demonstrating the first step in preparation of snapping turtle soup. But chefs, he agrees, as a whole more comfortable with slaughter, will likely find the first step a necessary sacrifice in pursuit of one of the more esoteric flavors of Asian cuisine. Chef Yamazaki also demonstrates his eel meat preparation, knowing that the latter (likely owing to its popularity in sushi) is more immediately accessible to Western palates. “The meat of the turtle is really wonderful in both texture and flavor,” says Chef Yamazaki, “but a lot of people are not even going to try a dish if it’s only prepared with turtle.” The chef prepares his turtle soup with shrimp, a “less adventurous” preparation, he admits, but one that is more likely to appeal to the largest number of diners.
Among chefs, however, and especially in an age when culinary cross-pollination is again popular (as opposed to its lame forebear, fusion), the flavor profile of turtle might be the kind of uncommon ethnic commodity that adds new horizons to the menu. “Turtle soup may be one of the few ingredients that can be compared to, say chicken consomme,” says Chef Yamazaki, meaning it has a flavor profile that should be easily adaptable to Western culinary traditions. The snapping turtles used in the soup are often sourced from local Asian markets, where the growing ethic of sustainability has yet to pervade. Adding to that the fact that turtle populations generally don’t recover well after aggressive harvesting, it seems likely that in an age when chefs are becoming more accountable for their menu choices, a delicacy like turtle soup may have to remain just that.
Chef Yamazaki uses soft-shelled snapping turtle, or suppon, to make this traditional nabe. Whether chefs will endure the comparatively tedious processes involved in snapping turtle preparation—beyond the sustainability issues in turtle harvesting—is another story. The turtle, after all, is the anti-pig, a shelled, prehistoric-looking creature that shows no apparent meatiness or culinary potential. But with enough time and attention, this seemingly inedible creature yields a meaty broth that is adaptable to modern sensibilities, as in Chef Yamazaki’s turtle jelly, which he pours over prawns.
Unlike the turtle preparation, Chef Yamazaki’s eel preparation is fairly straightforward—the eel is slaughtered, boned (by running a knife down its back, as belly-side recalls the practice of Harakiri), and cooked either Tokyo- or Osaka-style. Although both styles are intended to tenderize the tough eel meat, Tokyo style incorporates a steaming process in the midst of grilling, while Osaka style simply requires grilling the meat for a much longer time.
Snapping Turtle Preparation:
Step 1: To butcher snapping turtle, lay it on its shell and quickly plunge a large chef’s knife into its lower neck. Sever the head from the body and drain the blood out into a separate container (blood can be reserved). Step 2: Butcher turtle by cuttings its limbs from its body, removing its underbelly and its organs, removing its tail, de-clawing its feet, and finally sectioning its torso. The esophagus and all organs but the heart and liver should be discarded. Step 3: Peel the fine clear layer of skin off the turtle parts by submerging them in 80°F water (any warmer or cooler won’t work). Remove the parts from the water one at a time and scrape the skin off with your finger. Step 4: Fill a pot halfway with sake and a whole piece of ginger root and set over a high flame; add the peeled turtle pieces and cook, skimming the dirty froth as it boils to the surface. Step 5: As soon as you no longer need to skim the boiling mixture, add cold water, kombu, and boil. Remove the kelp after boil is reached to prevent it from imparting too much flavor and continue to cook for 40 minutes. Step 6: Set a bowl of ice water next to your work station. Dip your fingers in the ice water and quickly remove a piece of turtle from the pot (this can be done with a spoon, but the de-boning process requires working with your hands). Continue to dip your fingers into ice water as you de-bone the hot turtle pieces. The bones should come out easily but the pieces will be very hot. Step 7: Remove all the meat from every piece of the turtle; remove the soft collagen from the underside and rim of the hard shell. Reserve. Step 8: Once all the turtle pieces have been removed from the broth, return it to a boil; Add a dash of salt and enough light soy sauce for the broth to turn golden brown. Step 9: Add the turtle meat back to the broth and cook; strain the soup to clarify and finally add the turtle meat back to the strained soup.
Step 1: With a hammer and spike, nail the eel down to a cutting board—this should kill the eel. Step 2: Holding the eel in place (it will continue to move), insert your knife half an inch into its lower neck and run it down the eel’s back, staying as straight as possible and getting deeper towards the middle. Step 3: Open the eel up and, using the knife blade, remove the spine and discard. Step 4: Remove the organs, reserving the liver, which can be served sashimi-style. Step 5: Cut off the head and, turning the eel over, use the knife blade to remove the scales. Step 6: Wash the eel under running cold water to remove all the blood. Step 7: Oil a preheated grill and place eel, skin side down, on the grill to begin cooking. Step 8: Once the skin is browned, flip the eel over and grill its flesh. Step 9: Remove the grilled eel to a hotel pan and put in a steamer for 10 to 15 minutes; it should shrink slightly. Step 10: Return the steamed eel to the grill to finish cooking.
Prawns and Winter Melon:
15 ounces winter melon, skin peeled
4 Madagascar wild prawns
Assemble and Serve:
1 ounce gelatin
METHOD For the Soup:
Heat the sake and cleaned turtle in a pot and bring to a boil. Add the water, ginger and kombu and return to a boil. Once it has reached a boil, remove the kombu and let the mixture cook at medium heat for 40 minutes, skimming the top as it cooks. Strain the broth to clarify and reserve, along with turtle meat.
For the Prawns:
Steam the winter melon for 15 minutes; thinly slice the melon and cook in a pot of dashi over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, skewer prawns with a bamboo stick, sprinkle with salt and sake, and steam for 6 minutes.
Assemble and Serve:
Add the gelatin to a pint of turtle soup. Line a shallow pan with steamed prawns and pour the soup over it. Once the soup is thick enough to support them, carefully place layers of sliced winter melon on top. Let the gelatin set completely. When everything is set, cut the gelatin in square pieces, making sure each piece contains prawn. Garnish with thinly sliced fresh ginger.