Why I Ate a Rat in Cambodia
A hot, dirty shoulder of a highway in Cambodia is not a place you might ordinarily choose to stop. But we did, our bus grinding to a halt in front of a scatter of tiny roadside stalls, seemingly lost, awaiting rescue.
What life is really like in Cambodia
This wasn’t a totally new scene to me. I’d been travelling through Cambodia for a few days now, a country still visibly crippled by poverty, where tiny strung-out towns desperately cling to roadsides in ramshackle arrangements of restaurant-shop-homes. Here livelihoods depend on the occasional pitstop of speeding vehicles with a dollar or two to spare for a snack.
Today’s plat du jour? Rat. Our local Intrepid Travel guide Channy announces the brunch snack nonchalantly, hopping off the bus and expecting us all to follow.
How to eat a rat
A rat is one of the most unpleasant looking meats to display proudly charred and skewered, ready for consumption.
It’s best to cook them thoroughly—just in case—so they turn out looking blackened, dry and skeletal, much like what you’d imagine one would look like if it died of disease in a London gutter. A barbecued rat is not like a rotisserie chicken. The entire rat is cooked; the thick, stiff tail and long curved yellow teeth still unnervingly recognizable.
At this point, Channy selects the finest of the crispy specimens on offer and the woman running the stall wastes no time in picking up her cleaver and hacking the entire rat (teeth and all!) into bite-sized portions. A little dish of spicy sauce is added to the platter, and we’re heartily encouraged to tuck in.
If you haven’t already run screaming from the room, let me explain one thing. This wasn’t your average dirty city rat. This was a wild and free creature, a rice-paddy dweller and, so far as we were told, a perfectly healthy meal. This was enough to convince me to give it a go. When else was I going to get the chance?
I picked a piece (one without teeth) and took a tiny nibble, trying to avoid all the bones.
It was delicious. Are you sure this is a rat? I thought, not a quail? It tasted just like quail, a perfectly respectable protein you’d find on any five-star French menu. I licked my little pile of bones clean and took another piece. I was still gobbling away as the bus readied to leave, transfixed by the most unexpected flavour.
Making a cultural connection through food
I looked up to see the stall owner grinning with a look of pure joy. I felt myself break out into a similar grin. I had taken a chance on a local delicacy and, in doing so, reduced the number of differences between us by one: now we both enjoyed eating grilled rat.
While eating a rat in Cambodia was certainly a memorable experience, the thing I remember most prominently is how it changed my relationship, ever so slightly, with that woman running the stall. It wasn’t just that we had contributed to her livelihood by buying the rat; it was that we had embraced her culture and cuisine with an open mind, and given her a chance to help us understand her world.
This is why I ate a rat in Cambodia, and this is why I would do it again.
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