When is a rat not a rat? I was about to find out at a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, the Vietnamese metropolis everyone still calls Saigon. After traveling around this country for two weeks, consuming everything I could and saying no to nothing, I received an education in eating. I didn’t intentionally eat all the “weird” stuff, but if it was offered, I took it.
In this instance, I was eating with a Saigon-born chef and we had our roles: he did the ordering and I did the eating. He apparently had had his mind made up, as I flipped through the menu, the only part of which I could understand were the illustrations of animals in various stages of play or attack–a deer and its offspring canoodling in a prairie, a snake with its jaws ajar, a leaping frog, a weasel–that adorned each page, demarcating the types of meat one could order. Perhaps I just hadn’t gotten to the rat section before the waiter came over to take our order.
Twenty minutes and a few embryonic duck eggs later, there it was, laid out flat on a plate awaiting my incisors. But this was, I was told, no ordinary barbequed rat looking up at me.
Meet the Mekong rat, a delicacy of the eponymous delta in the southern part of the country. The Vietnamese and their southeast Asian brethren have been eating rats for time immemorial, particularly in rural areas. But it’s relatively recently bigger cities are starting to get in on the act, enjoying both Mekong rats and general field variety. One recent report linked the increase of this urban eating proclivity to a need for protein after the bird flu scare. But is a rat a rat in southeast Asia? And by that I mean, is a rat the same rat that we see scurrying around eek’ed out strap-hangers on the subway platform, a scampering symbol of all that is abhorred in our world? A metaphor for the places we fear the most, where we least want to get caught, where only rodents (and their partners in grime, cockroaches) dare go?
Not really. Like other southeast Asians, the Vietnamese are fiercely omnivorous eaters. They don’t waste many animals and plants and they don’t waste much of the plant or animal. Which is a good thing, right? If you’re going to sacrifice the life of a living thing for food, why throw out part of it? It’s probably something the West will never be able to fully endorse. At least not until we’re all speaking Chinese.
So, not wanting to waste this rat, I dug in. I picked up the entire fried-to-rigor-mortis carcass with both hands and sunk into the back leg, where I detected the most meat. The meat was dark and offered just a hint of gaminess. Like eating pigeon–“rats with wings,” as they’re often referred to, coincidentally–there were too many tiny bones and not enough meat to really enjoy it. I did my best and actually ate most of it. Afterward, I found it hard to imagine there will be connoisseurs of rat meat, that they’ll be anything more than a necessity when a fowl-induced plague arises.
But plague or no plague, I finally figured out when a rat is not a rat: when you can order it in a restaurant and eat it.