Walking through a traditional market in the Amazon you are sure to see a surprise or two - dozens of unique fruits, fried up tree grubs, unknown fish and herbs.
Wander deep enough into the rows of market stalls and you might come across a particularly interesting site - turtle soup cooking away in the shell of the turtle itself.
More common in Spanish speaking regions of the Amazon, where it is called sarapatera, turtle soup is a rare and delicious Amazonian delicacy.
For hundreds of years, around the world, people have enjoyed variations of turtle soup, to the demise of turtle species.
Turtle soup became so popular in Europe and North America at one point that turtle populations were driven literally to the edge of extinction. High prices and low population numbers eventually drove people to create “mock turtle soup,” usually with pieces of less desirable calf meat, which was a close match for the flavor.
The popularity of turtle and mock turtle soup, especially in Europe, can not be overstated. There is even a mention of mock turtle soup in the famous story of “Alice in Wonderland.”
Back in the Amazon, native people have hunted and cooked turtle soup for generations. Motelo, a rather large yellow-footed land tortoise, is the most commonly eaten species.
Overhunting of the turtles was not a problem for most of human history in the Amazon.
The problems started with the arrival of the Spanish and Portuguese which increased demand for the meat. Add to that the price for turtle meat abroad and the development of canned turtle meat and it is easy to see what happened.
Turtle numbers dropped to dangerous levels and in the 1960s, Brazil completely outlawed the commercial hunting of turtle.
Despite laws prohibiting the hunting of turtles, turtle soup has remained a popular dish for many Amazonian communities. You can still find turtle soup for sale in many markets and served up for special occasions in many villages.
As an outsider, it is very easy to jump to judgement when seeing this.
It is all too common to hear people say things about how “ignorant” native tribes are driving turtles to extinction.
I’d challenge you to step back and look at the whole picture though.
Turtle populations thrived in the pre-Columbian Amazon, despite turtles being an important part of the traditional Amazonian diet.
Populations were first driven down by demand for turtle meat by new settlers and then foreign markets. Numbers continued to decline as rainforest habitats were destroyed and reduced due to industrialized farming and cattle ranchers.
In fact, some research shows that eating cattle raised in the Amazon is more destructive to turtle populations than eating the turtles themselves.
The main issue though is the idea that a native community must change their diet and hunting habits due to the overhunting and destructive practices of, well, invaders.
Brazil had the right idea with their 1960s law and marketing campaign. Rather than focusing on native hunters and communities, the commercial hunting and sell of turtle meat was outlawed.
While seeing turtle soup for sale in a market is not ok, being offered the soup by a native family you visit is just fine.
It can be hard to understand, justify, or feel at peace with the hunting of any at risk species but it is also important to balance a respect of native traditions and culture.
Thankfully the issue might not be a problem at all in the future thanks to the new development of Amazonian turtle farms. Starting in the early to mid 1990s, Brazil began to run small scale tests to see the sustainability and market potential of farmed turtle meat.
Now sold and served throughout the Amazon to native communities and beyond to high end restaurants in Brazil and Peru, turtle meat is once again on the menu, ethically.
Amazon Turtle Soup
This traditional turtle soup is meant to be cooked over a fire in the turtle's own shell
1⁄3 lb (150g) turtle meat (substitute beef for mock turtle soup)
2 cups (473ml) water
Sacha culantro and salt to taste
Finely grate the plantain and add to a pot of water with the turtle meat.
Bring the water to a boil. Stir often to prevent the plantain from sticking and to allow the soup to thicken.
Reduce and simmer until meat is tender.
Season with salt and serve the soup topped with sacha culantro (also sold as Mexican coriander).