The other rat race: Hunting (and eating) rodents in Indonesia
Dweller of sewers. Abandoner of ships. Conduit of the plague.
No matter what descriptor you attach to the lowly rat, one thing is pretty much universal -- it’s the critter everyone loves to hate.
Except, that is, in Tomohon in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. Here the rat takes on a very different role -- that of delicacy -- and for a fee, you can hunt your own rat and eat it for dinner that evening.
Mario Ben Gavriel’s rat-hunting tour can hardly be called the country’s most popular activity -- I am the first foreigner to sign up for the jaunt and just his third customer in two years.
But for those who do take the plunge, an eye-opening glimpse of local life awaits.
Take the tour of Tomohon Traditional Market the morning before the hunt.
Here a multitude of creatures -- bat, python, dog as well as racks of rat, grilled and charred -- lay in varying stages of preparation.
One man cooks a python on the sidewalk, using a blowtorch. Another hoists a roasted dog over his head to better navigate the crowd.
A black macaque’s torso sits propped against a babirusa’s head. The howling of caged dogs adds a macabre soundtrack to the whole affair.
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A rat at Tomohon Traditional Market fetches IDR 20,000-30,000 (US$2.20-3.30), depending on its size and type. White-tail rats are meatier and sweeter, so they come with a higher price tag.
But buyers beware. “I wouldn’t buy rat at the market,” says Mario Ben. “You might be getting regular rat.”
“Regular rats” are city rats that will eat just about anything and are sometimes hawked by unscrupulous vendors hoping to make an easy buck.
For the best rats you need to venture into the forest, where they subsist on fruit, leaves, caterpillars and roots.
Mario Ben knows what he’s talking about. He’s been dining on rat for years and the men in his family are active in the rat game.
Part extreme-adventure, part extreme-cuisine, his tour -- one of several he conducts, including palm wine making and local village visits -- leads you into the jungle with local hunters to flush out the rodent with dogs, then have a hand in its preparation. An optional tasting is available at the end.
With our gruesome tour of the market over, it’s time to hunt.
Within half an hour of entering the jungle the dogs pick up the scent and the entire pack sprints into the bush. One emerges with a live white-tail in its mouth.
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Lead hunter Chili does the honors of putting it down, which involves clobbering it against a tree.
This one’s an easy catch. The rest involve a little more legwork.
The following scene is recreated nine times over the next few hours:
The canines pick up a whiff near a mound of dirt or clump of bamboo and begin digging furiously. The hunters employ shovels and sticks to ferret it out, sometimes reaching into the dark unknown to seize the rodent with their hands.
The rat is then rendered unconscious, usually whack-a-mole style, before being handed to youngest hunter Stevi to be strung up.
It looks chaotic, but it’s a disciplined affair. The dogs only bite to kill. They’ve been trained at a young age in the proper hunting etiquette -- as soon as they hear their master’s voice, they release the rat to their owner.
It’s difficult work. There’s never more than the hint of a trail, and the dogs often lead us deep into the tangled brush through steep terrain.
Matters are complicated by the mud and the mosquitoes. Insect repellent is a strict no-no -- it spooks the rats and throws the dogs off their game.
And there are leeches.
At the five-hour mark, I am bone-tired. And I’m just an observer.
The hunters are used to this work though. Some, like Chili, even go barefoot. Rat hunting is more of a leisure pursuit for these fellows.
Their day job is that of farmer. They each get IDR 150,000 (US$18) for participating in a tour like this.
Most of the time, they do it on their own, just for fun, or if there is a special occasion around the corner -- rat is not an everyday meal; it’s reserved for baptisms or family gatherings.
And it gets scarcer and pricier the closer it is to holidays or local festivals.
When the rains start, we head back to Chili’s house for the final part of the tour -- the eating.
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Wem, Mario Ben’s uncle, cuts open each carcass with a tetewa -- a knife fashioned from the outer skin of bamboo. He places the intestines in a bag to be cooked for the other hungry hunters here -- those plucky dogs.
Chili inserts a stick through the remains, and carefully roasts each over a flame.
I was expecting it to be served just like that -- on a stick, in its birthday suit -- but a much more elaborate dish is offered up.
The rat is fried in palm oil and set aside. A spicy sauce made from lemongrass, candlenut, galangal, chili, salt, garlic, and pandan and lemon leaves is prepared in the wok, and then the rat is added.
The final product looks, and smells, heavenly.
But the taste is harder to pinpoint. The sauce is incredibly spicy, but the meat is gamey, chewy, and just a little too crunchy.
And it is not at all like chicken.
Mario Ben emails me the recipe the next day. I think I may have to substitute some other meat though -- I’m not sure my friends are quite up to Spiced Rat in lieu of Meatloaf Mondays.
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Tour prices start at US$75 US per person, maximum four people. Group rates are available. Transportation from your hotel, Lunch (without rat) and dinner (with optional rat) are included.
Tours are available with advance booking any day except Sundays and holidays. The best time to visit is Saturdays during the dry season (May to August). Tours during the rainy season are weather dependent, so flexibility is a must.
There are three rat hunting options available: with dogs, with air gun (at night), and with cage. For the first two, you must be physically fit to make your way through the jungle. Cage hunting is suitable for all ages and abilities.
Mario Ben Gavriel, +62 897 1636659, www.localguiding.com, firstname.lastname@example.org;
Jl. Kel. Tangkawarow No.2 Lingk.7 Kakaskasen -- Tomohon, North Sulawesi, Indonesia