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Hungerlust: Everything You Need to Know About Cambodian Barbecued Field Rat

Picture of Alice Johnston
Food Editor
Updated: 21 May 2018
Rats have an image problem. Seen in the West as disease-spreading pests, the rodents are reviled by most. But in Cambodia, the common field rat is a prized delicacy. Served grilled and crispy with a dipping sauce, would you refuse rat if it were offered?

Culture Trip spoke to Choung Nhan, who lives and works in Ta Kream, a village in the Battambang province of Cambodia. Nhan’s family have been catching, cooking and selling barbecued rat every day for more than 20 years. She explained why everyone should be eating rat, and why she thinks it’s tastier than chicken, pork and duck.

History and tradition

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Choung Nhan explains how she cooks the rats | Bophay OukChan / © Culture Trip

Rodents have been hunted as a game animal for hundreds of years. Despite not being a current staple of the Western diet, the Romans caught and ate wild dormice in autumn (when they were fat from scavenging from the harvest), roasting them with honey or stuffing them with pork, pine nuts and spices. In AD 618-907 China, newborn rats glazed with honey were a popular snack eaten whole with chopsticks. The Cambodian tradition of eating ricefield rats, rattus argentiventer, is merely an extension of a centuries-long tradition.

Rats are an eminently suitable source of food for humans, providing the same nutrient profile as any other meat. It’s even economically sound, as eating animals that have the potential to decimate farmer’s crops helps to reduce food lost through predation. Hean Vanhorn, a department chief at the Ministry of Agriculture in Phnom Penh, said that rat meat trade was helping to protect Cambodia’s rice crop. He said: ‘Hunting rats for food and sale contributes to preventing damage to rice.’ It’s only the squeamishness people feel about them that prevents rat-meat consumption being more widespread.

Why they’re popular

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The rats are collected from rural rice fields | Bophay OukChan / © Culture Trip

As well as being a tasty snack, rat meat is a valuable commodity for Cambodia, having become hugely popular in both Thailand and Vietnam. The rat export business has boomed in the past decade. Ten years ago, rat meat was sold for less than 20 cents a kilo, and it now commands around $2.50 a kilo.

Cambodian rats are considered more tasty than those from any other country. Caught or trapped in fields, they eat rice and rice stalks, so their diet is natural and organic, unlike the rubbish-scavenging rodents found in cities.

Rat traders cross the borders between Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand daily, carrying cages of field rats on motorbikes. Catching and preparing rats for sale is an important source of money for many low-income families, and each rat catcher has their preferred fields and grounds for hunting them in. Only wild rats from the countryside are caught – Cambodians don’t like to eat city rats.

Choung Nhan has established herself as a reliable source of rat meat for traders. She said: ‘If my husband gets 30kg of rat meat, I can keep 10kg to cook and sell myself and sell 20kg to my buyer. I have a local collector who comes to pick up the rats we catch every morning to take across the border. Thai people like eating rat meat from Cambodia, that’s why they buy it from here.’

How to catch them

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A trap used to catch the rats | Bophay OukChan / © Culture Trip

The number of rats Cambodian fields fluctuates throughout the year. Although the animals reproduce year-round, the season’s height is after the rice harvest in June and July. With little to eat, the rats are forced to search for food over a wider area, making them easier to catch. This coincides with the rainy season, which runs from May to October. The rats search for higher ground the escape the flooding of the rice paddies, and the rat catchers know exactly where they’ll go.

Nhan spoke about how she sources the rats that she cooks and sells: ‘My husband hunts rats every day and I prepare them,’ she says. ‘He travels far the rural rice fields to find the rats. he uses traps, because it’s hard to catch with only his hands. It’s difficult walking that far with all the trapping equipment. He sleeps in the fields there and come back early the next morning.’

How they’re made

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The rats being cooked | Bophay OukChan / © Culture Trip

While cooking rats may be an unfamiliar concept to much of the world, they’re prepared in a similar way as other meats. The animals might be small, but they are versatile. You can have grilled rat, fried rat or boiled rat. It can even minced to be made into pâté. The organs are edible and the liver is renowned for being especially tasty.

Nhan cooks her rats simply, and guts and skins them for the barbecue herself. She said: ‘First we use boiling water to remove the fur, which is scraped off. Then we clean the rats with fresh water four to five times before draining them.

‘After they are drained, we mix in seasoning, salt and other ingredients such as garlic. Then I spatchcock them [and] grill them over a fire until they’re brown and crispy.’

How to eat them

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Making a sauce to go with the rat meat | Bophay OukChan / © Culture Trip

In Cambodia, rat is regarded as being more delicious and better for you than other meats. They’re often available at roadside stalls on a stick or served on a palm leaf plate as a quick snack. As they’re not very large, people buy two or three rats to make a full meal.

Nhan says: ‘Rat meat is tastier than chicken, tastier than duck. Even pork can’t compare to rat meat.

‘We like to dip the meat in a sauce, such as chilli, garlic or pepper. I also serve a salad with my rat meat. Tamarind, mango and tomato is especially popular.

‘Young or old, rat meat is eaten by everyone here. It’s one of Cambodia’s favourite foods.’

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