02.21.08

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.

15 Comments »

  1. Rebekah Pothaar China said,

    February 21, 2008 at 9:23 pm

    Ha ha ha, Ben, thank you! I love it!

  2. Jeremy Yeh China said,

    February 23, 2008 at 9:51 am

    thats weird,man. creepy…

  3. Qingdao Apartments Thailand said,

    February 24, 2008 at 8:23 am

    What’s worse chicken head or rat? I’ve never been offered a rat yet but the new year is young.

    ~Cheers

  4. Guo Yuhua China said,

    February 25, 2008 at 8:11 pm

    I was born in the year of mouse:-)

  5. ouyang United States said,

    February 26, 2008 at 11:53 am

    I once went to an aborigine bar in Tainan, Taiwan, and both crickets and mountain rat were on the menu. One fellow ordered rat because he wanted to see if his date would eat it, and we pretended it was chicken to get her to try it. I didn’t like the taste at all.

    In the HBO series on Rome, there is at least one scene where the plebians are eating mice at a restaurant. The series was noted for its historical accuracy, so mice on the menu seems to go way back and all over.

  6. michael United States said,

    February 26, 2008 at 10:14 pm

    Damn, Ben! You nasty… well, I guess I would try a bite.

  7. Dickiebo United Kingdom said,

    February 27, 2008 at 9:25 am

    If ever I needed proof that I’m a squeamish wimp then, this is it!

  8. jack China said,

    February 27, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    this is the first time to know this, I think this just happen in the past yearns, in which people have no food to eat, but now it can be popular in some city.

    I have no courage to try it, Ben you are great!!!

  9. Sherry China said,

    February 27, 2008 at 8:18 pm

    Hey there,

    Coincidentally I am from Sanming, China, the city where the whole story set in, thus so much fun and sense of nostalgia generated while reading your article. Nice try ben, as I myself have never had this courage to give the rat jerky a shot despite I am a local, born and bred.

    Yep little wonder that we are blessed with this local speciality of “8 jerkies”, as we human beings existing around the world (not merely referring to Chinese people) are notorious for eating anything flying in the sky except the air-plane, anything swimming under the sea except submarine, and above all, anything with 4 legs except the table.

    Sherry

  10. guest China said,

    March 3, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    怎么会有人吃老鼠!!!!!!!
    太可怕了!!! 呕吐…..

  11. Leben China said,

    March 6, 2008 at 11:49 pm

    The picture of the rat makes me sick . when I saw it in my dormitory , I didn’t chase them , I just used my broom . Good luck in the rat year .

  12. Gabrielle United States said,

    March 11, 2008 at 10:45 am

    I was totally okay with this post, right up until my eyes fell on the picture. I don’t think I was prepared for a visual. I think I may go and vomit now. Excuse me. :)

  13. Mom United States said,

    March 19, 2008 at 8:00 am

    Oh yeah, refrigerator rat is SO much better than sewer rat!

  14. Father of the Rat Fresser United States said,

    March 19, 2008 at 7:44 pm

    Seriously, do you have rats in your buffet?

  15. Aaron United States said,

    March 8, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    LOL, I’m surprised no one noticed your little pun(intended or otherwise)…

    “At the tail end of my trip”

    Made my day!

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