Lord George Pigot could not catch a break in the last years of his life. In 1776, the governor of Madras Presidency was deposed in a mutiny by the members of his very own council and imprisoned. A few months later, when he was allowed out for “change of air”, he died.

A raft of theories began floating around the sudden death: some suspected “nefarious plots”, while some believed Pigot succumbed to the shock of the coup. But the most idiosyncratic was the theory of the turtle soup. A writer, John King, submitted in his 1783 book that “Lord Pigot eat heartily of turtle soup a few days before his death; of which Stratton, Mackay….used to say he was very fond. In a hot climate it was natural it should produce a [fatal] fever…”

Whether or not this theory is true, it is plausible that a Georgian aristocrat like Pigot would nurture a gluttonous appetite for turtle soup, tropical heat notwithstanding. By the middle of the 18th century, a tureen of rich turtle soup, ideally made with the choicest cuts of green turtles imported live from the West Indies, was the centrepiece at the grand banquets attended by the cream of the English society. Enlivened with aromatic herbs, spices and Madeira or sherry, it was, as one writer put it, the very “apogee of Georgian dining”.

For the turtle lover, there were other dishes too. Turtle steaks and pottages, salads and jelly, turtle fins served in flavourful broth, and turtle innards folded into fricassee were some of the options. The prized calapash (the greenish, gelatinous layer of fat and cartilage under the outer shell) and calipee (the white underbelly meat) were others. But nothing compared to the turtle soup.

Sea turtle. Credit: Olga Ga/Unsplash [Unsplash License].

Eighteenth and 19th century cookbooks were littered with recipes for the aspirational delicacy. One called for the turtle meat to be soaked and studded with cloves, and roasted with wine and lemon juice. Another recommended adding anchovies and cayenne pepper before cooking the soup over half a day and serving it in a turtle shell. A reader could find myriad morbid ways of eviscerating a turtle in these books. One author, for instance, suggested decapitating the animal and leaving it to “bleed in a cool place till the next morning” or, in case of paucity of time, scalding it “as soon as it’s killed”.

Dangerous waters

The English discovered the culinary possibilities of the turtle on their voyages to the Caribbean. But in India, the knowledge had existed for aeons. Residents of Indus Valley sites are known to have eaten it. Indian materia medica recommended it for its nutritional and nutraceutical virtues. And the ancient physician Charaka is said to have prescribed it to people suffering from indigestion and weakness.

Not all Indian communities considered turtle meat kosher, but to those who did, it was delectable. In bygone Bengal, writes scholar Ghulam Murshid, “those higher up the social ladder ate the meat of deer, goats, lamb and turtle”. The region’s literature makes frequent references to turtle meat and eggs. Narayan Deb’s Padmapuran describes the protagonist’s sister-in-law cooking baby tortoise legs for her wedding feast, while 18th-century poet Iswar Gupta mentions the tradition of cooking tortoise meat with grated coconut in the Barisal region of what is now Bangladesh. In neighbouring Assam, the 16th-century text Kumaraharana speaks of a dish of turtle eggs cooked with lentils.

While green turtles were occasionally brought in from South East Asia, Indians normally turned to indigenous riverine species to sate their appetite for turtle meat. English zoologist Edward Blyth writes in the 19th century that the northern river terrapin, or Batagur Baska, abounded “at the mouth of the Hooghly” and was brought in great numbers to Calcutta, “where they are eaten by particular castes of Hindoos”. The Baska, “humbler though still meritorious”, eventually became a substitute in turtle soup, according to 19th-century naturalist William Theobald. Not surprisingly, the Baska is critically endangered today.

Northern river terrapin. Credit: Biodiversity Heritage Library/Flickr [Public Domain].

Reginald Heber, the second bishop of Calcutta, first savoured riverine turtles on his voyages along the Ganga and his verdict was generous, with a slight qualification. He wrote that although there wasn’t much calapash in the species, “what there was was extremely good and sweet, without the least fishy taste, and the lean very juicy, well-flavoured meat, not unlike veal”.

Heber’s appraisal caused indignant outrage among his fellow Europeans, who feared that Indian rivers, Hooghly included, contained necrotic pollutants (according to Hindu tradition, those killed by snake bite are given water burial). English travel writer Emma Roberts called Heber’s culinary experiment an act of griffinism – the ignorance of a newcomer. “Turtles are never eaten by Europeans in India unless they have been transported in the early part of their existence to a tank and thus secured from feeding on the offal of the river,” she wrote in her 1835 book Scenes and Characteristics of Hindostan.

Captain Robert Adair M’Naghten was even more unforgiving of Heber than Roberts. In his acidic Ode to the Ganges, he wrote: “Sweet river! Sweet river! – thy turtle, when pieced / Into soup, Bishop Heber would cram in, / He thought the West India one match’d by the East / Well! a brahmin’s as good as a nigger, at least, / And our turtle get plenty of Brahmin.” Alluding to the cholera pandemics that killed hundreds of thousands of Indians in the 18th century, and the practice of water burials, M’Naghten added, “I don’t see why a prime Ganges turtle, especially after a fine cholera season, should not be just as ‘souporific’ as a Jamaica one.”

Cook up a storm

Poor satire didn’t put the culinarily adventurous off the riverine turtle. In Culinary Jottings for Madras, Colonel Arthur Kenny-Herbert called the Indian flapshell turtle a “real delicacy worthy of the closest attention”, comparing it to the terrapin or tide-water tortoise of North America. His recommendation was to have it in a stew, soup or curry. Walter Campbell, a captain in the British Army, too was an admirer of the riverine turtle. In his My Indian Journal (1864), he recounted coaxing, cajoling and then finally bribing two fishermen in Ramapatam into handing over the large turtle they had caught for the local raja’s table. The turtle was cooked into a multiple-course feast comprising turtle soup, turtle steak, dressed turtle fins and turtle hash.

On their hunting trips in forests of India, the colonists kept an eye out for turtles too. Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Cummings described in his book Wild Men and Wild Beasts one way to hunt the animal: shoot the large turtles in the river and when they come ashore, presumably distressed by the water rushing through the hole in the carapace, finish them off. He recounted shooting turtles basking in the sun on the alluvial islands in the Chumbul river: “There is usually a prejudice in India against using fresh water turtle as an article of food, but on this occasion we turned them into both soup and pies – very excellent.”

While turtle soup, considering the elaborate and gruesome nature of its preparation, was more often left to professionals and culinary establishments, the mock turtle soup became immensely popular among the Europeans in India as a more practical alternative. During the Revolt of 1857, General Havelock, who was tasked with bringing reinforcements to Lucknow, wrote in a letter home that his famished garrison contrived to regale him with beef cutlets, champagne and mock turtle soup.

By the latter half of the 18th century, just like the taverns of London, taverns of Calcutta and hostelries of Madras were serving turtle soup, paired with the traditional accompaniment – cold punch. The legendary Harmonic Tavern in Calcutta, run by one Mr Creighton, was famous for its oysters and turtle soup, and even offered home delivery. This is confirmed by Walter Kelly Firminger, the archdeacon of Calcutta, in his Thacker’s Guide to Calcutta. Such was the demand for Harmonic’s turtle soup that on December 9, 1784, Mr Creighton placed an advertisement in the Calcutta Gazette that read: “Any person having turtle to dispose of, may hear of a purchaser in applying to Mr. Creighton at the Harmonic Tavern.”

The status-laden turtle soup also found a spot on the menus of the gentleman’s clubs of colonial India, where it continued to be served well into the 20th century. In The Calcutta Cookbook, Minakshie Das Gupta wrote that Calcutta Club’s banquets served “stewed turtle soup presented in a tureen of appropriate design” along with other dainties like “minced partridge pie garnished with assorted liquored cherries and Steak Romaine”. The Great Eastern Hotel served turtle soup at tiffin service, while the legendary restaurant Firpo’s served it on special occasions well into the 1950s.

Taking a cue from British publications like The Gentleman’s Magazine, newspapers in India such as the Bengal Gazette and Madras Gazette often carried advertisements that notified the public of days on which a club, tavern or other such establishment would dress a turtle. One such ad read: “Mr. Wright, at the New Tavern, near the Church, informs the Calcutta Public that he has purchased some live turtles, and means to dress one on Saturday, June 24.” Calcutta, like London, was in love with the delicacy, prompting Theobald to conclude: whether “the gourmet of Chouringhee or of Guildhall”, the turtle soup delights all.

Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a food and culture writer, based in Kolkata. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Food Writings for 2022.