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article imageMeeting the need for meat: Cambodia's rat-meat exports

By Karen Graham     Aug 25, 2014 in Food
The thought of eating rat meat is enough to turn many people's stomachs. Rats are generally considered to be vermin-carrying pests in many societies today, and are often associated with filth and disease. But human food preferences differ widely.
Cambodia lies between Vietnam on its southern border and Thailand to the North. Cambodia has enjoyed almost two decades of relative peace after enduring the murderous rule of the Khmer Rouge, but it is still a relatively poor country.
With most of its workforce engaged in rice farming, and with rice field rats being the farmers biggest enemy, it was natural that a profitable cottage-industry grew up in the capture and selling of the field rats.
Rice field rats, Rattus argentiventer, are considered a healthy delicacy, fit for human consumption due to their free-range lifestyle and organic diet. Considered a pest because they gorge on the rice plants, when the rice harvest has ended in June and July of the year, the rat-catching season opens.
The end of the harvest season is also the start of the rainy season in Southeast Asia, and the field rats, with little to eat, and being forced to higher ground because of the rains, are fairly easy to trap. Some farmers set out as many as 120 traps every night during the season, taking them to market the next morning.
A man who is the rat catcher along Klong 15 canal takes his night s catch of rats to market.
A man who is the rat catcher along Klong 15 canal takes his night's catch of rats to market.
Thanoo Saowaros
Chhoeun Chhim, 37, is a local farmer in the Kompong Cham province, 60km from the capital Phnom Penh. He says "Wild rats are very different. They eat different food," explaining the differences between rice field rats and their city cousins, which he considers vermin, and not fit for the cooking pot.
"Common rats are dirty and they have a lot of scabies on their skin. That's why we don't catch them," Mr. Chhim told the BBC. He explained that his rats ate rice stalks, the roots of wild plants and even the crops of some of his unlucky neighbors.
Mr. Chhim said that on a good night, he can catch up to 25 kilograms of rats. But even though rat meat has a taste similar to pork, the farmer said it is not his preferred choice of meats. Chin Chon, 36, another rat-catcher, said, "We sell the rats for money and buy fish instead."
A Vietnamese street vendor sells the rats live  but will kill and dress them for customers.
A Vietnamese street vendor sells the rats live, but will kill and dress them for customers.
These farmers are making decent money, selling their loads of live rats to a buyer, who then sells the rats in Vietnam. While rats are cheap in Cambodia, in Vietnam, they are an expensive delicacy, and are easily adaptable to a variety of cooking methods. Rats can be grilled, fried, put into the soup or stew pot or the meat ground up into a pate.
Rats are a lucrative business. One rat trader, Saing Sambou, 46, says that at the height of the rat-catching season, she exports on average, two tons of rats every day to Vietnam, a four-hour trip by motorbike to the border. When she started 15 years ago, rats were selling for 20 cents per kg. Now she is earning $2.50 per kg.
Rat-catching in the city dump
Rat-catching is a poor man's business in the slums surrounding the Stung Meanchey dump in Cambodia. For years, many families living around the dump eked out a living searching through the piles of garbage, sometimes making about $2.50 a day selling junk found there. The rats living in the dump and surrounding alleys and sewers are not exactly eating high on the hog.
About three years ago, a few slum dwellers turned to rat-catching, and for awhile, it was a profitable business, with many people making as much as $32.50 a day. It is also a dirty business, with the rat-catchers often going down into the sewers in search of their prey. Rather than resell the rats live to dealers, the rats are killed, dressed and put in chests filled with ice. The rat carcasses are sold to a dealer who then trucks them to Poipet City where they are taken to Thailand for consumption.
The profitable business has now fallen onto hard times as increasing competition has driven the price of rat meat down. With more people hunting rats, the nightly haul has also fallen for the rat-catchers. With only one buyer around, he has slashed his prices too. So now, men who were making $24 a night are now only taking home $8.70 for their nightly labors.
Rodents have been a food source for a long time
Rodents have been hunted as a game animal for centuries. We have hunted and eaten rabbits and hares, lagomorphs, an order of mammals closely related to rodents. Rodents are actually a suitable source of food for humans. They provide protein and essential amino acids necessary in the human diet.
From an economical point of view, it would make sense that eating the rodent pest that consumes a farmers fields of grain would help to reduce rodent numbers. But this has proven to not be the case, but it is a good way of recovering some of the food value lost due to predation. The consumption of rodent pests is prevalent in Western Africa for this reason.
In Peru, guinea pigs have been raised domestically for centuries. The guinea pig, domesticated since at least 2500 B.C. was the first rodent to be raised for food. In Brazil, the Capybara was domesticated as early as 1565, and in early China, during the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907) people ate newborn rats stuffed with honey.
Guinea pigs were the first rodent to be domesticated and raised as food. In this photo  a tourist di...
Guinea pigs were the first rodent to be domesticated and raised as food. In this photo, a tourist dines on guinea pig in Ecuador.
And we must not forget the Romans of the 2nd century A.D. who popularized the eating of the dormouse. Caught in the wild in the autumn months when it was plump, it was sometimes roasted and dipped in honey, or baked with a stuffing of pork, pine nuts and other spices. The point is, rodents raised on grains, nuts and other plants and their roots are an excellent source of needed protein, and they are plentiful. About the only thing having more protein is insects, but that is another story.
More about Cambodian export, field rats, Vietnamese delicacy, harvest season, guinea pigs
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