Waiter, There's A Rat in My Soup - and It's Delicious

Source: Wall Street Journal, May 31, 1991

GUANGZHOU, China -- The Cantonese people of south China are legendary for eating anything that moves -- and some things that are still moving. The food market here features cats, raccoons, owls, doves and snakes along with bear and tiger's paw, dried deer penis and decomposed monkey skeletons.

Now, this rich culinary tradition, along with rising disposable income in this most prosperous city in China, has inspired kitchen utensil salesman Zhang Guoxun to open what is believed to be China's first restaurant dedicated to serving rat.

That's right: Rat. Rat with Chestnut and Duck. Lemon Deep Fried Rat. Satayed Rat Slices with Vermicelli. In fact, the menu lists 30 different rat dishes, even including Liquored Rat Flambe, along with more mundane dishes such as Hot Pepper Silkworm, Raccoon With Winter Melon and Sliced Snake and Celery. And in the six months since the doors opened, customers have been scampering in at all hours to the euphemistically named Jialu (Superior to Deer) Restaurant.

"I was always eating out, but I got bored with the animals that restau- rants offered," Mr. Zhang says during an interview over a plate of Black- Bean Rat. "I wanted to open a restaurant with an affordable exotic animal. Then I was walking home one night and a rat ran across in front of me and gave me this idea."

Mr. Zhang's restaurant is as trendy as they come in China. The 15-table, two-story eatery is a mixture of blond wood furniture, stucco walls and wooden lattice laced with plastic vines. Tonight's crowd includes a young couple who stroll in hand-in-hand and nestle in a quiet corner for a romantic rat dinner. Other groups include engineers, office clerks, salesmen and factory workers.

Tonight's special is Braised Rat. Garnished with sprigs of cilantro, the morsels of rat meat are swaddled in crispy rat skin. The first nibble reveals a rubbery texture. But the skin coats one's teeth with a stubborn slime. The result is a bit like old chewing gum covered with Crisco.

But other dishes are better. German Black Pepper Rat Knuckle (rat should- ers, actually; the knuckles are too small) tastes like a musty combination of chicken and pork. The rat soup, with delicate threads of rat meat mixed with thinly sliced potatoes and onions, is surprisingly sweet. Far and away most appealing to the Western palate is Rat Kabob. The skewers of char- coaled rat fillet are enlivened with slices of onion, mushroom and green pepper and served smothered in barbecue sauce on sizzling iron plates that are shaped like cows.

Also on the menu: a Nest of Snake and Rat, Vietnamese Style Rat Hot Pot, a Pair of Rats Wrapped in Lotus Leaves, Salted Rat with Southern Baby Peppers, Salted Cunning Rats, Fresh Lotus Seed Rat Stew, Seven-Color Rat Threads, Dark Green Unicorn Rat -- and, of course, Classic Steamed Rat. Generally, the presentation is quite elegant, with some dishes served with lemon slices or scallions forming a border and others with carrots carved into flower shapes.

Experienced rat eaters, however, warn that this is no meat to pig out on. "Watch out," warns Wei Xiuwen, a factory manager eating at an adjacent table. "If you eat too much rat, you get a nosebleed." Several customers take off their shirts halfway through the meal because eating rat, like dog, seems to raise the body temperature for some reason. That's why rat is considered a winter food. In the summer, the restaurant does most of its business during the late-night and early-morning hours, after the weather cools down.

The restaurant is popular -- Mr. Zhang claims profits of $2,000 a month -- because it brings people back to their roots. The restaurant's cooks, and most customers, are originally from the countryside, where as children they ate air-dried rat meat. "If dried by a north wind, it tastes just like duck," Che Yongcheng, an engineer and regular customer, says wistfully of his favorite childhood snack.

For newcomers, Mr. Zhang has color brochures, featuring a photo of Rat Kabobs alongside a bottle of Napoleon X.O. In both the menu and brochure, the rats are referred to as "super deer" because Mr. Zhang says he wants to separate his fare from the common sewer rats that even Cantonese might find unappetizing. Mr. Zhang says his restaurant serves only free range rats, wild rodents that feed on fruits and vegetables in the mountains a couple of hundred kilometers to the north.

The brochure explains why rats are the health food for the 1990s. It says the rats are rich in 17 amino acids, vitamin E and calcium. Eating them promises to prevent hair loss, revive the male libido, cure premature senility, relieve tension and reduce phlegm. A rat's "liver, gallbladder, fat, brain, head, eye, saliva, bone, skin" are "useful for medical treatment," says the brochure.

The restaurant's basement kitchen is a Dante's Inferno where shirtless cooks sweat over huge woks atop howling gasfueled stoves that shoot flames five feet in the air. Dozens of fat, ready-to-cook rats are piled in a bamboo basket next to a crust-covered pump that noisily slurps up a small river of scum that runs off the stove and across the floor.

The senior chef is not here tonight. An understudy, Huang Lingtun, clad in rubber sandals and pants rolled up to his knees, explains how the rats are rounded up. They're captured and cleaned by farmers who free-lance as rat bounty hunters. Some smoke the rats out by setting fields on fire and snaring the fleeing rats in nets attached to long bamboo poles. Others string wires across fields to stun unsuspecting rodents with high voltage charges. The rats, each about a half-pound, arrive at the restaurant freshly gutted, beheaded and de-tailed.

Mr. Zhang says that the traditional recipes on his menu were suggested by Tang Qixin, a farmer honored as a model worker by Mao in 1958 for his prowess as a rat killer. Rat eradication campaigns have been a staple of Chinese life since Mao declared war on the four pests -- rats, flies, mosquitoes and bed bugs -- in the 1950s.

In 1984, the last Year of the Rat, the government launched an all-out crusade in which an estimated 526 million rats were killed. In 1985, the government tried to maintain the momentum by promoting rat meat as good food, explaining that "rats are better looking than sea slugs and cleaner than chickens and pigs."

Like most successful entrepreneurs during these times of shifting poli- tical winds in China, Mr. Zhang is quick to highlight the patriotic nature of his business rather than the personal economic benefits. "I am helping the government by eliminating some pests and helping enrich some farmers," he says.

Mr. Zhang says he's too new to the business to think about a chain of rat restaurants. But he says he's unconcerned about anyone stealing his idea. "My quality is tops," he says, "so I'm not worried about competitors."