No endangered reptile was killed to prepare the turtle soup I was about to partake. Yes, turtle soup – the squeamish can go read other posts.
My sister told me that I loved turtle soup since I was inside my mother’s womb. Mom had so many cravings for this reptile that Dad had to go buy it for her during her pregnancy.
Turtle Soup in Singapore
Turtle soup began as the nourishment for the working class, just like bak kut teh. For the record, there’s only one distributor of freshwater soft-shell turtle in Singapore. Tridelta imports and slaughters farmed turtle from Indonesia and China, and sells them to every one of the turtle soup store in SIngapore. It wasn’t so in the beginning where everyone had their own sources of wild turtles (from Thailand, Malaysia, etc).
It is important the restaurants get their turtles from the right sources as there are many endangered species in the wild in Asia that have been caught for food. And the Japanese have been eating this for a long time and also perfected the breeding process. Most of the Chinese turtle farms follow this method of breeding.
Lorong Tai Seng
For some reason Lorong Tai Seng 大成巷 in central Singapore (near Paya Lebar for those younger audience) had the highest concentration of turtle soup restaurants. Lorong Tai Seng was a conclave of Teochew immigrants, and the turtle soup paddlers were mainly Teochew. There were many hawkers selling turtle soup but there are two worthy mentions – the famous Tai Seng Turtle Soup as well as Ser Seng Turtle Soup. Since the redevelopment of the Upper Paya Lebar area, Tai Seng became synonymous with turtle soup and many restaurants claiming to be from Tai Seng sprung up at all corners of Singapore. It is very difficult to verify who’s really from Tai Seng except from those faithful customers that have followed them to the new stores. Ser Seng remained in the same family even after they moved out of Tai Seng.
This was an evening market that sprung up in front of the old Tongji Hospital which the older generation would refer to as 同济医院前 (literally “in front of Tongji”). Officially it’s called Wayang Street, and due to expansion of Eu Tong Sen Road and gentrification of the Chinatown area, this evening market ceased to be.
Many of the hawkers were relocated to Berseh Food Centre near Sungei Road. And some of these were turtle soup sellers that were prying their wares there moved along and are still operation at Berseh, which is the other turtle soup hub in Singapore since 1975. But recently there were only two stores left.
Turtle Soup Family Tree
There were many branches of turtle soup pioneers but they spawned the different styles of turtle soup that you get today. Firstly there’s Tan Ah Sai.
Tan Ah Sai started selling turtle soup at the famous Orchard Road carpark (where 313 Orchard now stands) in 1946. He moved to multiple locations including Lorong Tai Seng (note this address, as it was the turtle soup Ground Zero) before opening at three locations – Tai Thong Crescent, Lor Bachok (Geylang) and Bedok Reservoir. These three locations are now operated by his two sons and daughter respectively. Don’t know when they split and became Ser Seng 生成 (still open at Tai Thong Crescent), Tan Ser Seng 陈生成 (at Geylang Lor 21) and Teck Ser Seng 德生成 (Bedok Reservoir, but can someone confirm if it is still open?).
Tan Ser Seng Herbal (Turtle) Soup
This is owned by the younger son, Tan Khar Seng and is the one I am most familiar with as I was just staying just around the corner. My Dad used to buy it from his father at Tai Seng. Imagine our excitement when it opened in 1992! Today, the third generation is running the operations.
Turtle has a texture between fish and chicken – slightly stiffer than fish and softer than tender chicken thigh – so please do not say it tastes like chicken. The whole turtle is not wasted in the cooking process. The skirtings under the shell, the claws, the offals, everything goes into the pot that results in the sticky consistency of the soup. You can order the double-boiled version (which is the common way everyone else is serving it in) or in a claypot.
After so many years, their soup still had the same good round body which was heavy from the dissolved collagen in the broth. I don’t know when they started serving yam rice with turtle soup, but I would prefer white steamed rice when the soup was this good! Though I would say their yam rice was quite good, flavourful and the deep fried shallots sprinkled on top hit the spot. But too little yam bits in the rice I would say.
Besides turtle soup, they also serve black chicken soup and other double-boiled soup, as well as other stir-fry and tzechar favourites like these heh jhou 虾枣 (deep fried prawn roll). The bits of water chestnuts reminded of how my Mom would do this at home.
They are one of the last remaining standalone turtle soup restaurants in Singapore. They claimed to be the first to cook turtle soup in a claypot, however I couldn’t verify that claim, but I have been eating at their Geylang shop since they opened here because of proximity and also for the wonderful taste.
Tan Ser Seng Herbs Restaurant
29 Lor Bachok, Singapore 387791
Tel : +65 6748 3953
Date Visited : Nov 2021