A food of their own: The art of eating rat in Nepal

Kamal Raj Sigdel

A food of their own

Rats are a delicacy among the Tharus, but there is a sense of loss that begets the community

Cultures are paradoxical. A particular habit may be considered taboo by another, while it itself may indulge in traditions that can be considered different. One area where the most paradoxes can be found is in the culinary traditions of cultures, and even within the small geographical area of Nepal, there are cultures that practise food habits that could be termed different, yet form an inalienable part of their culture.

A section of the Tharus that lives on the plains of
Nepal tickles their taste buds with rat meat, a taboo in the rest of the country. Yet, the centuries-old tradition is not just a recipe; instead, it is a game in itself—the rat-hunt, which involves skills and strategies. One needs to be trained to catch these swift mammals to make them a part of their cuisine, a tradition that has been a part of the community’s nutritional diet for centuries. Though a sense of cultural loss has already started bothering the community, some of its members in Mid- and Far-Western Nepal are trying to keep it alive in its original form.

The game begins

The annual rat-hunting season starts annually after the farmers harvest their paddy-fields, mainly after December. Angnu Chaudhary, one of the seasoned hunters from Badalpur-9, Bardiya, is one of those leaders in the community who feel pride in keeping the ancient food game alive. “More than the meat, what is more important is that the hunt is a game itself,” says Angnu as he slings a faruwa (spade) over his shoulder and sets out to a nearby paddy field. Six other fellow farmers follow him with similar tools. 

The rats that they seek are different from the pungent ones that raid godowns, or the really small ones. Instead, the hunt is on for the big furry ones that proliferate in the paddy fields. “We call them musuwas,” Angnu says. These rats live underground in the fields, and feed almost exclusively on food grains. And hunting them is not an easy job. Despite all the time and energy that a single hunt takes, the form has been an entertainment as well for the people since ages.

Irrespective of their size, a single family of rats can dig nearly 100 m every day. They are not as dumb as they may sound, sometimes displaying cunning that can match even the smartest hunters. And thus, the hunt becomes even more interesting with both sides displaying great courage, strength, strategies, and patience.  “Sometimes, on bad days, we dig the entire day but cannot catch a single rat,” says Kaluwa Chaudhary, Angnu’s younger brother.

The whole scenario resembles something right out of Hemingway’s Old man and The Sea, with the men parallels for
Santiago, the tragic hero from the epic. These men are no less, each striving to find that hole where potential game may be living in. Each hole requires a careful scrutiny. “If the holes are freshly dug up and has clear rat feet marks outside it, one can be sure that a rat lives inside it,” says Angnu, with a skill that has been handed down from generations.

“Here you are!” he points towards a fresh excavation. “They have closed the hole to trick us, I am sure they are in here.”

Once the hole is identified, there are two ways to trap the rats. “Either dig the hole to the bottom, or put up a wadda, a traditional mousetrap. If you decide to dig the hole, you will catch a lot of rats then and there, but if you go through with a trap, you will have to wait until next morning for only one rat,” Angnu explains. 

It’s obvious that the men today have decided to dig the hole all the way to the bottom. The most interesting moment in the hunt comes after digging for an hour. Water is poured into the hole, and the rats jump out in a flash; the hunters, as well as the spectators, cry out aloud: ‘Pakro, pakro’ (Catch, catch). Not surprisingly, Angu’s team ends up catching over a dozen rats after two hours.

Rat meat isn’t eaten with the main course; instead, it is served as a pickle. And there is a special way to prepare it. The innards are put aside first, and the rats roasted until the gray fur burns out. The roasted meat is then pounded in a dokni, a wooden bowl, along with spices and chilly as per taste.

“Once the chatni is ready, it goes well with jaand (the local beer),” Angnu says. “There is nothing that can substitute its great taste.” And he is right. Rat pickle has a unique taste that is both hot and tangy, a rather piquant taste that remains on the tongue for a while.

A sense of loss

While Angnu is jubilant after the completion of the hunt, he is equally worried that his generation might be one of the last to taste the chatni. There is a sense of loss—a loss of culture, of tradition, of values—not only in Angnu individually, but among most of the senior members of the community

Politician Laxman Tharu, coordinator of the Tharuhat Joint Struggle Committee—an alliance that led the community’s nationwide protests for their rights in March last year, is aware of the richness of his community’s unique cultures, including the rat-hunt. “There are several such cultural activities, but we have been unable to market them, mainly because the community at large has remained culturally, politically and socially suppressed and excluded for long,” he says. “The way society looks down upon cultures which are not ‘mainstream’ has also played role in making it a taboo subject, thereby keeping it out of the market.”

Apprehensive of the loss, Laxman is now planning a separate Tharu village to showcase his culture in its originality. He says the indigenous culture and knowledge, including the recipe for rat pickle are the assets of the community and they should be promoted. 

Sociologists argue that rat-hunting could be a new area of investment and linked with the mainstream cultural tourism—the way dog-meat (
South Korea), horse-meat (Philippines) or crocodile- or giraffe-meat (Kenya) are being served. “However, there is a sort of hegemony that is hindering us from capitalising on our uniqueness and strengths,” says sociologist and an indigenous leader Dr. Om Gurung, currently heading a government-formed taskforce to make a list of indigenous nationalities.

Gurung thinks there is a possibility that this culture is marketed along the lines of what they have done in
Kenya with crocodile meat. Promoting nutritional and cultural values of the chatni can also help generate income for anyone, who knows the art and is interested in promoting it.

Though not in a professional manner, some local leaders from Bardiya have tried to market the food items made of rat meat. Ramdhani Chaudhary, the head of the community, was the first to propose the demonstration rat hunting at the Maghi Mela organised last year in Rajapur, the nearby marketplace. “It was one of the most visited stalls in the fair. The entire stock of rat-chatani was sold out on the first day itself.” Ramdhani’s success in the fair is a proof that many of such unique food items could make it to the five-star hotel menu.

“Frog-meat is in no way a more sophisticated food item than a rat-pickle,” says Gurung. “If people can be tempted to taste frog-meat served in a five star hotel in
Paris, they would definitely be interested to taste the rats in Nepal. I am sure this could make it to a five-star hotel menu if marketed properly, as the frogs do.”

No comments:

Post a Comment

Only genuine comments please!

Most Popular Posts