RATS AS FOOD IN CHINA
People in some parts of China are fond of eating rats. According to Bloomberg: “Bamboo rat meat is popular in the southern Chinese provinces of Guangxi, Guangdong, Hunan and Jiangxi, and was once promoted as a top 10 delicacy for tourists to try when visiting the Jinggang Mountains. A rat can produce 1.5 to 2 kilograms of meat, Liu Kejun, a senior researcher with the Guangxi Animal Husbandry Research Institute said. The meat can be stewed in soy sauce, or used in soups or barbecued. A table filled with bamboo rat meat dishes only costs about 300 yuan for six or seven people, ” Liu said. “It tastes very delicious.” [Source: Niu Shuping, Bloomberg, March 15, 2020]
The custom of eating rats has been around a long time. Chinese in the Zhou dynasty who ate rats, calling them "household deer." The rats that Chinese eat are not regarded as dirty animals. They don’t come from the cities but come from the countryside and are said to consume all natural foods such as fruit, grass and leaves. Rat meat cost more than four times more than chicken or pork and twice that of beef. Eating rat is said to prevent baldness. The owners of a rat restaurant told Peter Hessler of the New Yorker, "If you have white hair and eat rat regularly, it will turn black. And if you're going bald and you eat it everyday your hair will stop falling out. A lot of the parents around here feed rat to a small child who doesn't have much hair, and the hair grows better."
Rats are regarded as a winter dish. One waitress at a restaurant in Guangzhou told the New York Times, that they “carry too many diseases in the summer.” Live rat embryos from Guizhou province are nicknamed the "three squeals" because they squeal when they are picked up (1), dipped in soy sauce (2), and popped into the mouth (3). Most of the rats served are trapped by farmers in the nearby countryside. Many of the farmers grew crops but switched to rat catching because there was much more money in it. The rats are brought in sacks. The wriggle around and squeak as they are placed on scales to determine how much the farmers are paid.
Websites and Sources: Unusual Food photos travel-images.com Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Good Academic site on regional cuisines kas.ku.edu ; China.org Food Guide china.org ; Travel China Guide travelchinaguide.com Wikipedia article on History of Chinese Food Wikipedia ; Books: “Beyond the Great Wall; Recipes and Travels in the other China” by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid (Artisan, 2008) features travel stories, political analysis and recipes from Tibet, Xinjiang, Guizhou, Inner Mongolia and other places off the beaten track in China.
Rat Restaurants in China
Highest Ranking Wild Flavor Restaurant in Guangdong offers simmered mountain rat, mountain rat curry, spicy and salty mountain rat, simmered mountain rat with black beans, steamed mountain rat, rat soup. During an outing there Hessler was asked. "'Do you want a big rat or a small rat?” What's the difference? "The big rat eats grass stems, and the small one eat fruit.” Which tastes better? “'Both of them taste good." [Source: Peter Hessler, New Yorker, July 24, 2000]
Customers often examine the caged rats and pick the ones they want. Describing how they were killed Hessler wrote, "Suddenly, the worker flipped his wrist, swung the rat into the air by the tail, and let go. The rat made a neat arc. There was a soft thud when is head struck the cement floor. There wasn't much blood."
Hessler order a small mountain rat with black beans, which was served in a clay pot. "I ate the beans first," he wrote. "I poked at the meat. It was clearly well done, and it was attractively garnished with onions, leeks, and ginger. Nestled in a light sauce were skinny rat thighs, short strips of rat flank, and delicate toylike rat thighs. I put a chunk of it into my mouth, and reached for a glass of beer. The beer helped...It wasn't bad. The meat was lean and white, without a hint of gaminess. Gradually, my squeamishness faded, and I tried to decide what the flavor of rat remind me of. But nothing came to mind. It simply tasted like rat."
Competition is keen in the rat restaurant business. Hessler said the Highest Ranking Wild Flavor Restaurant cost $24,000 to build. Soon after it opened another rat restaurant, the New Eight Sceneries of Wild Flavor Food Restaurant, which cost $50,000, opened and third massive three-story air-conditioned rat restaurant was under construction. But that doesn't mean they don’t make money. Each of them serve 3,000 rat dishes a day on the weekends and attract customers from all over China.
Bamboo Rat Meat Producers in China
Raising bamboo rat meat was a once profitable way, with quick returns, for China’s rural poor to make money. Niu Shuping of Bloomberg wrote: “Many local governments had encouraged impoverished citizens to breed the animal, offering financial incentives as part of poverty-relief measures. “Many breeders are poor farmers living in mountainous areas who have no other income, ” said Cheng Bujun, who runs a rat farm in the Guangxi region. “Some of them are disabled or elderly who can hardly find jobs in cities.” His company buys baby rats from these farmers who were given parent rats for free by local authorities, Cheng said. Breeding the rats is the only source of revenue for his contract farmers who live in a poor village in the southwest province of Guizhou. [Source: Niu Shuping, Bloomberg, March 15, 2020]
“There are about 66 million artificially-bred bamboo rats in China. In Guangxi, the annual market value of the animal is about 2.8 billion yuan. Of the 180,000 breeders in the region, nearly 20 percent are from low-income rural families, according to the proposal.“Some parts of China have been breeding bamboo rats for the last 30 years, ” said Liu Kejun, a senior researcher with the Guangxi Animal Husbandry Research Institute. “Artificially-bred bamboo rats are different from wild ones” and should be strictly monitored, but not banned, he said.
The rats provide quick returns due to their low investment costs, and are the most effective way of getting farmers out of poverty, Liu said. The animals only eat bamboo and sugarcane and can be bred in small spaces. A rural family that rears 20 rat pairs can make 10,000 yuan to 15,000 yuan ($1, 430 to $2,150) the following year, he said, way above the country’s poverty level and enough for a rural family to live on.
Poor Rat Meat Farmers in China Hit by Coronavirus
After the coronavirus virus struck in early 2020 many bamboo rat breeders were forced to shut down if for no other reason than that demand for their products had been squashed. Bloomberg reported: Beijing clampdown on trading wild animals due to the coronavirus could potentially destroy the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of farmers. Cheng Bujun, who runs a rat farm in the Guangxi region said the ban will return them to poverty, he said. [Source: Bloomberg, March 15, 2020]
“China has a target of lifting more than 5 million people in rural areas out of poverty by the end of this year, but the coronavirus epidemic, which is widely believed to have spread from a wild animal and seafood market in the city of Wuhan, could derail those plans. Stopping the bamboo rat meat trade alone puts an end to an annual business worth $1.4 billion. Since China moved to ban all wild animals for consumption in February 2020, the agricultural ministry has been updating a list of exempt animals. Liu and large breeders sent a proposal to Beijing to ask the government to include bamboo rats on the list, according to a document seen by Bloomberg.
Still, the prospect of bamboo rats being added to the list is slim given that the country’s top infectious disease expert, Zhong Nanshan, said in January that bamboo rats and badgers are among the wild animals that could be the source of the new coronavirus. Farms that are breeding animals on the banned list will be shut down or compensated to switch to other businesses, Liu Yongfu, head of the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development, said. Closing down the artificial breeding business won’t have a major impact on the country’s poverty relief target, he said.
Image Sources: Weird Meat blog except skinning the snake, Perrechon, Wiki Commons and rat restaurant Asia Obscura ; YouTube
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2021