Though Hong Kong may now have one of the most modernized skylines in the world, you can still see many old-fashioned herbal teashops all over Hong Kong on the street -- even if your eyes miss them -- you can still sense it with your nose by its distinctive, sometimes pungent, fragrance. Most of these shops sells four to six kinds of herbal tea, depending on the size of the store but the tortoise jelly, the glossy blackish pudding made of turtle's plastron and a plethora of Chinese herbs, is one staple that seldom miss the list.
It is quite hard for travelers, especially those from the west to fathom what good is turtle as a food, not least what is inside these tortoise jelly. While every herbal teashop claims to has it own recipe, the basic ingredients for the jelly are the turtle's plastron, smilax (to fook ling, 土茯苓), honey, ginseng, wolfberries, dried rehmannia (gon di wong, 乾地黃), licorice root (kam cho, 甘草), divaricate saposhniovia (fong fung, 防風), and plenty of other minor addition. Of the turtle's plastron, the turtle by choice used to be the three-lined box turtle (kam ching qwei 金錢龜) for its superior medicinal efficiency. But since this turtle was put under the protection of endangered spices conventions some years back, other kinds of freshwater turtle like the Asian box turtle are used instead. Quite like a fine Bordeaux, however, good turtle plastron is not consumed freshly but aged for some years to reach its 'ripeness' before milled for turtle jelly.
As a traditional Chinese medicine, the tortoise jelly has always been revered for its universal tonic effect. According to Chinese medical classics, the jelly not only can flush away toxins from the body, but is also effective for problems like damp-heat, yin deficiency, dry skin, pimples, insomnia, lack of appetite (what a horrid sickness!), and etc.
As a food however, you eat this at your own peril because the taste of it, whether you judge from your front, mid or back palate, is bitter -- mildly but bitter nonetheless. The best way to remedy this snag, like most of we Chinese do, is to eat it with some honey or sugar sprinkled on top.