Paddy rats back on menu in Cambodia

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The Independent Online

It is paddy rat season again in southern Cambodia, and gourmands from all over the country, not to mention the rest of South-east Asia, are polishing their chopsticks at the thought of stir-fried rat, boiled rat al dente and Vietnamese-style barbecued rat.

It is paddy rat season again in southern Cambodia, and gourmands from all over the country, not to mention the rest of South-east Asia, are polishing their chopsticks at the thought of stir-fried rat, boiled rat al dente and Vietnamese-style barbecued rat.

At Soeung Thy's roadside stall in Phum Bek Kroang village, near Sihanoukville, the specialty is plump paddy rats drizzled with curry sauce. Demand is so great that he hires skinny boys to strap torches to their heads and hunt the creatures by night with bare hands and a bamboo stick.

The rat season begins when the monsoon rains ease, bringing the rodents down from higher ground to feed on rice roots. Many Cambodians were forced to eat paddy rats for the first time during the starvation years of the Khmer Rouge, but they have long been a treat in rural areas, and in the past couple of years have become a fad in Cambodian cities.

Rat is lean, low-fat meat, say foodies, with the taste likened to pork or tangy partridge. Recent outbreaks of a virulent bird flu in Thailand and Vietnam, which killed 31 chicken handlers, have made many Asian cooks reluctant to touch raw poultry, further boosting the popularity of rat dishes across the region.

At the rural roadside stands around Sihanoukville, where a brace of grilled rats sells for 500 riel (roughly 8p), customers debate whether it tastes best grilled over coal, stir-fried or stewed in fiery curries. Villagers typically wash this delicacy down with a shot of rice wine or a swig of beer. "We eat rat like we eat duck or chicken," said Soeung Nhean, a labourer. "We don't know what nutrition it provides, but we know that rat meat has a really good taste." So robust is demand that dealers cannot get enough supplies from local hunters and trappers, and imports from Vietnam are growing. There, farmers lay traps on regular rat runs though the paddies, using sweet potato as bait. Hunters bring steel baskets, each crammed with up to 400 rats, to the docks, where wholesalers arrive in boats.

Like other "bush meat" - snakes, lizards or monkeys - rats are rarely washed before processing. After evisceration, all the intestines, livers and heads are cleaned and packed in salt. Ethnic Chinese communities sometimes serve this as gia cay (mock dog meat).

Small rats are considered the most succulent and can be grilled whole on bamboo skewers. But most gourmands prefer their rat boiled - the head and legs are trimmed off, and the remainder is marinated with lemon leaves before being spiced and boiled.

To concentrate the flavour, some press the cooked meat between wooden boards overnight. Officials warn diners that rats can spread disease: the most hygienic technique is to trap your own or buy rats live at the market, then fatten them up in a kitchen corner until it's time for a seasonal feast.

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