The Year of (Eating) the Rat

Posted in Festivals and Celebrations, Food and Drink, Local Customs, Personal Anecdotes at 7:17 pm by Benjamin Ross

In 2007 we saw the coming of the year of the pig, the main source of protein for China’s mass population. In 2006 it was the year of the dog, and dog ownership in China skyrocketed like never before. 2005 brought us the year of the “cock,” and I don’t even want to go there. But what do we get from the latest beast, the rat, which the Chinese Spring Festival has dragged through the gate? What can be done with a small rodent which for most of human history has been regarded as nothing more than a pest?…The answer is the same as what you do with most animals in the Middle Kingdom…you eat ‘em!

Yes, you heard me correctly. I said you eat the rats. Although most of the world (as well as most of China) would never even consider eating these small furry rodents, the practice does go on in some areas. One of which is Western Fujian in the cities of Sanming and Longyan.

Chinese pork gall bladder jerky
When bought in a store, rat jerky usually comes packaged like this bag of pig gall-bladder jerky (another one of the “8 big jerkys.”)

To be fair, I should add that the word for “rat” in Chinese 老鼠 (lao3 shu3) in common speech is an umbrella term which includes both rats and mice. The “rats” most commonly used for human consumption in Fujian are what we would refer to as “field mice” rather than the sewer rats which are so common in most Chinese urban centers.

My ex-girlfriend was from Sanming and had told me that one of here favorite childhood memories was “eating rats.” Mice would be trapped in fields, killed, dried, and then made into “rat jerky” (老鼠干) which is considered one of the “8 big jerkys” (八大干) of Western Fujian. I had remained incredulous, so when we took a trip back to Sanming last spring, she promised me she would inquire if rat jerky was still around.

On our first day back we asked my ex’s grandma if there was some place in town where we could buy rat jerky. She told us that these days it is becoming less and less safe to eat the stuff. Because most of the field mice have been killed in recent years, scrupulous farmers have begun making jerky out of sewer rats, which are prone to disease. However, it turned out we were in luck, because earlier in the week, she told us, she had gone to a market in a neighboring town and picked up some fresh (non-jerkified) rat.

frozen mouse to eat
The mouse which came out of my ex-girlfriend’s grandmother’s refridgerator

Cultural sensitivities aside, I’m not sure I was prepared for what I was about to see, as the old woman pulled a completely intact frozen mouse out of the freezer. It was about 3 inches long, and placed on the table, it looked just like one of those mice I used to chase out of my apartment when I was in college.

That night for dinner, the mouse was chopped up into morsels, and cooked into a dish with hot peppers and garlic, and it tasted surprisingly wholesome…like beef, but with much smaller bones. Had I not known what it was I would have had no idea I was eating a rodent. Who woulda thunk? 祝你鼠年快乐Happy Rat Year!

Addendum: At the tail end of my trip to Sanming I was able to find several stores which sold rat jerky, and later on a Western Fujian specialty shop in Fuzhou which sold it as well. It comes in several flavors, most of them spicy, and is usually priced at least twice as expensive as the equivalent weight in beef jerky.



Spring Festival and Politics Mix in Chicago

Posted in Down in Chinatown, Festivals and Celebrations at 3:23 pm by Benjamin Ross

I just returned from the Chicago Chinatown Spring Festival Parade. Other than the sub-zero (that’s Farenheit sub-zero) temperatures, and the fact that everything was in Cantonese, the parade had the pretty much the same brewhaha one would expect from a New Years celebration in China. What was interesting, however, were the scores of Republic of China (Taiwan) flags, coupled with American flags, which were passed out to the entire audience…not sure how well this would have gone over back in the Mainland.

Chinese New Year Celebration Dragon Spring Festival
Koumintang Taiwan flag

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