Barbecued field rat makes for tasty, healthy Cambodian snack (dpa German Press Agency)

Long the scourge of rice farmers, barbecued “organic” field rat has
become a popular snack in Cambodia and Vietnam, trusted for the rats’
clean living and their bacon-like taste.

Phnom Penh (dpa) – It’s midday in a Chong Ksach, a small Cambodian
farming village an hour outside Phnom Penh, and Yem Chan is loading
flat wire crates of live rats on to the back of his motorbike.

The stressed rats squirm in their cages, hiss, and urinate through
the bars, but Yem Chan looks unperturbed as he prepares his cargo for
export to Vietnam, three-and-a-half hours away.

The smell is terrible, but for 28-year-old Yem Chan these rats are
gourmet gold. In Vietnam, barbecued rat meat from Cambodia’s rice
fields has become a popular snack for its bacon-like taste and
organic credentials.

Business is good, as shown when several other traders on motorbikes
laden with rat crates zip through the village as Yem Chan prepares
his bike.

On this particular day, Yem Chan’s workers have caught 90 kilos of
rats from traps laid across the nearby rice fields. Each wire cage is
large enough for one rat, with a door at one end that springs shut
behind the curious animal, before it is transferred to a communal
cage for the motorbike journey.

The captives range from small fluffy ones resembling gerbils, to big
black rats the size of kittens.

It’s believed in Cambodia and Vietnam that such meat can be safer
than other varieties, according to Yem Chan, because it “does not
contain any chemicals,” he says. Field rats just eat “rice, corn, or
crab.”

Traders like Yem Chan send thousands of rice-field rats over the
border each day to feed demand for rat meat, which started to become
popular 15 years ago.

Rat meat is so popular in parts of Vietnam, particularly the Mekong
Delta, that it has started to feature on travel blogs, including Trip
Advisor, where baffled foreign visitors upload photos.

“Yah, that’s skinned field rat meat next to the eels! Oh, my,” one
visitor posted on Trip Advisor alongside a photo of rat carcasses for
sale, after visiting a market in the popular colonial town of Sa Dec.

In northern Vietnam, local rats are still plentiful enough to satisfy
local demand, and clean enough to meet the exacting standards of rat
catcher and restauranteur Nguyen Van Khau, 50.

“Rat meat is very organic and chemical free,” he said from Tan Phong,
a 5,000-strong community 80 kilometres from Hanoi. “That is why it is
more expensive than chicken or rabbit meat.

“It is very popular in my village. Everyone in my village eats rat
meat, even children favour it.”

One customer agrees. “I love rat meat very much because it smells
tasty, free of chemicals,” says Do Van Chien, 28. “In my country
town, rat meat is considered a delicacy. We like to entertain guests
with it.”

Catching rats from his village’s rice fields and serving them at his
restaurant and cooked up at market stalls, Khau says he can earn up
to 22 million dong (around 1,000 dollars) over the peak rat season in
October and November each year.

In Cambodia, Yem Chan finds the local demand around Phnom Penh to be
less lucrative, so heads straight over the border to rural southern
Vietnam.

If he makes the trip every day, Yem Chan and his business partner can
earn 1 million to 2 million riel (245-485 dollars) per month.

It’s less than Khau makes in Vietnam, but back in his village in
Cambodia it is a significant income.

Not all of Yem Chan’s rats are sent to Vietnam; some stay behind to
be eaten by the locals.

But in Cambodia, rat meat is not a delicacy, and is more typically
eaten by people who cannot afford chicken or pork.

Those that are kept behind, Yem Chan kills by hitting their head
against the ground, then hands them to a local woman who skins them
with a large knife and barbecues them over an open flame for 45
minutes.

Served with a sweet and sour dipping sauce, the rat meat – barbecued
beyond recognition – has a chewy and stringy texture, and turns out
to taste surprisingly like bacon.

“Our Khmer people have been eating rats since their existence,” Yem
Chan says.

“When we eat it, we feel as one with wildlife creatures,” he says.
“It’s delicious.”