According to the Chinese calendar, the Year of the Rat begins today. But here in Vietnam, it may have started sooner: unexpected changes in Vietnam’s food chain and diet have sparked a rodent-eating bonanza.
Due to bird flu, field rats have become a popular food in Vietnam.
In Tu Son, a small village sitting near the banks of the Red River, rat hunter Ngo Minh Tam reckons “99%” of the people regularly dine on rat meat, an estimate local street vendor Nguyen Thi Le supports.“I’ve sold 2kg in the past quarter hour,” she boasts, displaying a large metal bowl of skinned and cleaned bodies.
Rat-based cuisine is beginning to catch on in the big cities as well. Handwritten signs in some of the backstreets of Hanoi offer cash in return for freshly caught rat.
“Both Vietnamese and foreign tourists are eating more rat meat these days,” says Pham Huu Thanh, proprietor of the Luong Son Quan restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, the former southern capital Saigon. Thanh serves rat grilled with lemon grass or roasted in garlic for around 60,000 Vietnamese dong, or $4, a serving (rat may taste like chicken, but with a tiny rat drumstick between your fingers, it’s hard to pretend it really is).
Rats have been a delicacy in Vietnam’s rural areas for centuries, with recipes dating back 150 years.
For a long time, however, this country’s big city folk were generally less enthusiastic, often associating the animals more with garbage-digging vermin than mouth-watering entrees.
But in 2004, flare-ups of bird flu claimed scores of lives here and prompted many diners to search for alternative sources of protein. Demand went up, but paradoxically supply did too. That’s because rats’ natural predators—snakes and cats—are increasingly finding themselves on the menus of posh restaurants frequented by wealthy Vietnamese.
In the Le Mat district of Hanoi, dozens of restaurants specialize in snakes either farmed for the table or caught by hunters. Other snakes are shipped to China, where they are also considered a delicacy. A booming economy has caused snake prices to double in the past year in some places to roughly $18 a pound.
And despite a 1998 government ban on cat consumption enacted to control the rat population, felines are also sometimes eaten at some restaurants; on menus, they appear as “little tiger.”
“If people are eating the rats’ natural predators, then that means more rats for us,” says the spry Tam as he pursues his quarry one recent morning. The 53-year-old farmer and part-time taxi driver supplements his income by hunting the rodents in the fields and industrial estates around this village on the outskirts of Hanoi.
He is joined in the hunt by his friends Ngo Van Phong, 55, and Nguyen Huy Duc, 53, and his two trusty dogs, Muc and Ki. The party gets lucky on some disused land at the back of the Tong Thanh Dong Packaging factory. Muc catches the scent of a rat. After a brief chase she burrows her muzzle into a grass embankment and wags her tail furiously—a sign she has found a candidate for lunch.
Messrs Tam and Duc leap into action, digging into the ground, while Phong secures the rat’s possible escape routes. Duc pulls dry straw from a canvas sack, stuffs it into holes in the embankment and sets it on fire. As the fire takes hold, a fleeing rat ends up instead in a bamboo funnel which Tam placed over a hole.
Tam’s favourite rat repast is a stew of rat meat, heart and liver and served up in a steaming broth. “It’s just the thing for a cold winter’s day,” he says. In total, Tam nabs eight rats in 45 minutes. He and his friends sell whatever they don’t need for themselves to village market vendors. The vendors sell rat meat for about $1.50 a pound. It’s a relative deal. Pork costs roughly a third more, and chicken twice as much.
The field rats which Tam and his friends hunt are white and brown, with a diet rich in grain and snails. Although Vietnamese generally don’t consume the flea-infested sewer rats of popular imagination, the stigma still lingers. Some restaurants in Vietnam are wary of explicitly offering rat on their menus. Owners worry their customers might suspect they are being served rat meat when they order more expensive chicken dishes.
At the elegant Dan Toc Quan restaurant in Hanoi, a waitress whispers that she can serve rat—if the chef can find one. She disappears to the kitchen and comes back shaking her head. “Perhaps you could bring your own rat and we’ll cook it for you,” she said. Most Vietnamese prefer to prepare their rat at home. In Tu Son, Ngo Thi Thanh one recent day bought almost 4.5 pounds of rat meat to feed 10 of her friends who had dropped in for lunch. “It’s difficult to compare the taste of rat to other meat,” she says.
When Thanh got home, she carefully washed the rat and chopped the meat into quarters. Bending over a charcoal stove, she fried one batch with salt and steamed the other with lemon leaves as her friends looked on with anticipation. “It’s delicious,” one said.
For connoisseurs of rat meat, slightly chubby rats are the most sought after. A thin layer of fat adds more flavour to the meat and provides a satisfying sizzle when the chunks of rat meat are added to the frying pan, they say. It is also best, they add, served with generous servings of potent home-brewed rice wine.
Some wonder whether the Year of the Rat will help promote the cause of rat cuisine. While rodent vittles are still consumed in China, the popularity of these and other exotic meats waned after epidemiologists traced the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in 2003 to the consumption of weasel-like animals called civets.
Tam, the hunter, is underwhelmed by the event. “We don’t need an excuse to eat rat,” he said.
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