A RAT IN MY SOUP
Looking for the best-tasting rodent in town.
The New Yorker
July 24, 2000
"Do you want a big rat or a small rat?" the waitress asked.
"If you have white hair and eat rat regularly,
it will turn black," the owner said.
The waitress at the Highest Ranking Wild Flavor Restaurant, who was also named
Zhong (in Chinese, it means "bell"), asked again, "Do you want a big rat or a
"What's the difference?" I said.
"The big rats eat grass stems, and the small ones eat fruit."
I tried a more direct tack. "Which tastes better?"
"Both of them taste good."
"Which do you recommend?"
I glanced at the table next to mine. Two parents, a grandmother, and a little boy were having lunch.The boy was gnawing on a rat drumstick. I couldn't tell if the drumstick had belonged to a big rat or a small rat. The boy ate quickly. It was a warm afternoon. The sun was shining. I made my decision. "Small rat," I said.
The Chinese say that people in Guangdong will eat anything. Besides rat, a customer at the Highest Ranking Wild Flavor Restaurant can order turtledove, fox, cat, python, and an assortment of strange-looking local animals whose names do not translate into English. All of them are kept live in pens at the back of the restaurant and are killed only when a customer orders one of them. Choosing among them involves considerations beyond flavor or texture. You order cat not just because you enjoy the taste of cat but because cats are said to impart a lively jingshen (spirit). You eat deer penis to improve virility. Snakes make you stronger. And rat? "It keeps you from going bald," Zhong Shaocong, the daughter of the owner of the Highest Ranking Wild Flavor Restaurant, told me. Zhong Qingjiang, the owner of the New Eight Sceneries Wild Flavor Food City, went further. "If you have white hair and eat rat regularly, it will turn black," she said. "And if you're going bald and you eat rat every day 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."
Earlier this year, Luogang opened a "restaurant street" in the newly developed Luogang Economic Open Zone, a parkland and restaurant district designed to draw visitors from nearby Guangzhou City. The government invested a million two hundred thousand dollars in the project, which enabled the two rat restaurants to move from their old, cramped quarters in a local park into new, greatly expanded spaces-about eighteen hundred square feet for each establishment. The Highest Ranking Wild Flavor Restaurant, which cost forty-two thousand dollars to build, opened in early March. Six days later, the New Eight Sceneries Wild Flavor Food City opened, on an investment of fifty-four thousand dollars. A third restaurant-a massive, air-conditioned facility, which is expected to cost seventy-two thousand dollars-will open soon. A fourth is in the planning stages.
On the morning of my initiation into rat cuisine, I visited the construction site of the third facility, whose owner, Deng Ximing, was the only local restaurateur not named Zhong. He was married to a Zhong, however, and he had the fast-talking confidence of a successful entrepreneur. I also noticed that he had a good head of hair. He spoke of the village's culinary tradition with pride. "It's more than a thousand years old," he said. "And it's always been rats from the mountains-we're not eating city rats. The mountain rats are clean, because up there they aren't eating anything dirty. Mostly, they eat fruit-oranges, plums, jackfruit. People from the government hygiene department have been here to examine the rats. They took them to the laboratory and checked them out thoroughly to see if they had any diseases, and they found nothing. Not even the slightest problem."
Luogang's restaurant street has been a resounding success. Newspapers and television stations have reported extensively on the benefits of the local specialty, and an increasing number of customers are making the half-hour trip from Guangzhou City. Both the Highest Ranking Wild Flavor Restaurant and the New Eight Sceneries Wild Flavor Food City serve, on average, three thousand rats every Saturday and Sunday, which are the peak dining days. "Many people come from faraway places," Zhong Qingjiang told me. "They come from Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Macao. One customer came all the way from America with her son. They were visiting relatives in Luogang, and the family brought them here to eat. She said you couldn't find this kind of food in America."
In America, needless to say, you would be hard-pressed to find twelve thousand fruit-fed rats anywhere on any weekend, but this isn't a problem in Luogang. On my first morning in the village, I watched dozens of peasants come down from the hills, looking to get a piece of the rat business. They came on mopeds, on bicycles, and on foot. All of them carried burlap sacks of squirming rats that had been trapped on their farms.
"Last year, I sold my oranges for fifteen cents a pound," a farmer named Zhong Senji told me. "But this year the price has dropped to less than ten cents." Like many other peasants, Zhong decided that he could do a lot better with rats. Today, he had nine rats in his sack. When the sack was put on a scale in the rear of the Highest Ranking Wild Flavor Restaurant, it shook and squeaked. It weighed in at just under three pounds, and Zhong received the equivalent in yuan of a dollar forty-five per pound, for a total of three dollars and eighty-seven cents. In Luogang, rats are more expensive than pork or chicken. A pound of rat costs nearly twice as much as a pound of beef.
At the Highest Ranking Wild Flavor Restaurant, I began with a dish called Simmered Mountain Rat with Black Beans. There were plenty of other options on the menu-among them, Mountain Rat Soup, Steamed Mountain Rat, Simmered Mountain Rat, Roasted Mountain Rat, Mountain Rat Curry, and Spicy and Salty Mountain Rat-but the waitress had enthusiastically recommended the Simmered Mountain Rat with Black Beans, which arrived in a clay pot.
I ate the beans first. They tasted fine. I poked at the rat 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 ribs. I started with a thigh, put a chunk of it into my mouth, and reached for a glass of beer. The beer helped.
The restaurant's owner, Zhong Dieqin, came over and sat down. "What do you think?" she asked.
"I think it tastes good."
"You know it's good for your health."
"I've heard that."
"It's good for your hair and skin," she said. "It's also good for your kidneys."
Earlier that morning, I'd met a peasant who told me that my brown hair might turn black if I ate enough rat. Then he thought for a moment and said that he wasn't certain if eating rat had the same effect on foreigners that it did on the Chinese-it might do something entirely different to me. The possibility seemed to interest him a great deal.
Zhong Dieqin watched me intently. "Are you sure you like it?" she asked.
"Yes," I said, tentatively. In fact, 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, exactly, the flavor of rat reminded me of. But nothing came to mind. It simply tasted like rat.
After a while, Zhong Dieqin excused herself, and the waitress drifted away. A young man came over and identified himself as the restaurant's assistant manager. He wanted to know whether I had come to Luogang specifically to report on the restaurants. I said that I had. "Did you register with the government before you came here?" he asked.
"Because it's too much trouble."
"You should have done that-those are the rules," he said. There was a wariness in his voice, which I recognized as part of a syndrome that is pervasive throughout China: Fear of a Foreign Writer.
"I don't think the government cares very much if I write about restaurants," I said.
"They could help you," he said. "They would give you statistics and arrange interviews."
"I can find my own interviews. And if I registered with the government I would have to take all of the government officials out to lunch." A scene appeared in my mind: a gaggle of Communist cadres, middle-aged men in cheap suits, all of them eating rat. I put my chopsticks down.
The assistant manager kept talking. "A lot of foreigners come to our China to write about human rights," he said.
He looked at me hard. "Have you come here to write about human rights?"
"Have I asked you any questions about human rights?"
"Well, then, it would be hard for me to write a story about human rights. I'm writing a story about Luogang's rat restaurants. It's nothing sensitive."
"You should have registered with the government," he said stubbornly.
Next door, at the New Eight Sceneries Wild Flavor Food City, the Zhongs were more media-savvy. They asked if I had brought along a television crew. They looked disappointed when I said that I hadn't. Then the floor manager brightened and asked me how I'd liked their competition.
"It was fine," I said.
"What did you eat?"
"Simmered Mountain Rat with Black Beans."
"You'll like ours better," she said. "Our cook is better, the service is quicker, and the waitresses are more polite."
I decided to order the Spicy and Salty Mountain Rat. This time, when the waitress asked about my preference in sizes, I said, pleased with my boldness, "Big rat."
"Come and choose it."
"Pick out the rat you want."
I followed one of the kitchen workers to a shed behind the restaurant, where cages were stacked atop one another. Each cage contained more than thirty rats. The shed did not smell good. The worker pointed at a rat.
"How about this one?" he said.
He put on a glove, opened the cage, and picked up the chosen rat. It was about the size of a softball. "Is it O.K.?" he said.
"Are you certain?"
The rat gazed at me with beady eyes.
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 its head struck the cement floor. There wasn't much blood. The worker grinned. "You can go back to the dining room now," he said. "We'll bring it out to you soon."
"O.K.," I said.
Less than fifteen minutes later, the dish was at my table, garnished with carrots and leeks. The chef came out of the kitchen to join the owner, Zhong Qingjiang, the floor manager, and a cousin of the owner to watch me eat. "How is it?" the chef asked.
"Is it too tough?"
"No," I said. "It's fine."
In truth, I was trying hard not to taste anything. I had lost my appetite in the shed, and now I ate quickly, washing every bit down with beer. I did my best to put on a good show, gnawing on the bones as enthusiastically as possible. When I finished, I sat back and managed a smile. The chef and the others nodded with approval.
The owner's cousin said, "Next time you should try the Longfu Soup, because it contains tiger, dragon, and phoenix."
"What do you mean by 'tiger, dragon, and phoenix'?" I asked warily. I didn't want to make another trip to the shed.
"It's not real tigers, dragons, and phoenixes," he assured me. "They're represented by other animals-cat for the tiger, snake for the dragon, and chicken for the phoenix. When you mix them together, there are all kinds of health benefits. And they taste good, too."