For many of those reading, the word "rat" will elicit a certain response.
We think of the scurrying, the meaty tail, sewers, infestation. Scary, glowing eyes looking at you through the darkness as your bin bags get ripped apart by sharp, diseased little teeth.
Just as the Western world's heavy dependence on dairy puzzles the East, our collective shuddering at the idea of doing anything with rats other than giving them a wide berth (or keeping the cute, non-sewer-y ones as pets) must be equally perplexing. Not just to South East Asians, either. In Andean regions like Columbia, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, rodents are a staple food—people have been roasting guinea pigs there forever. In Venezuela, capybara is a delicacy. In African countries like Togo, too, rat meat is highly prized.
In Cambodia, wild rats—not the scabby kind that live in the crevices of urban areas—are considered a delicacy, and a healthy one at that due to their largely organic diet. They are the ultimate—if highly invasive—free-range grazer, tucking into rice stalks in the fields and any other unlucky farmer's crops they can get their teeth into.
Most of Cambodia's population works in rice farming, and it makes perfect sense that a lucrative industry might come from one of the biggest blights on farmers' crops. There, rat meat is cheap, but in other areas that prize the meat (which is supposed to taste a bit like pork), like Vietnam, it's expensive. Lo, a profitable export market is born.
According to a recent BBC report, peak rat-catching season is after the rice harvest in June and July, when the rats are left with very little to eat and are forced by the seasonal rains to head for higher ground. Of course, here, they are easier to trap.
Farmers set out hundreds of traps during the night, ready to take their bounty to the market the next morning to sell to buyers who will then sell the rats—who are nice and plump from all their crop gorging—in Vietnam, where their meat may end up being fiercely grilled, fried, stewed or ground into a pate.
Apparently the livers are delicious, too.
A local farmer, Chhoeun Chhim, told the BBC that, on a good night, he can catch up to 25 kg of rats, and at the height of the season, some rat traders can export up to two tonnes of rats to Vietnam each morning. That's a lot of pate potential.
"People come from far and wide to buy [the rats]. They like the big fat ones," said one Vietnamese seller. Not so the Cambodians that are catching them, though. "We sell the rats for money and buy fish instead," another rat catcher, Chin Chon, told the BBC.
Maybe we should all follow suit and start thinking about eating not just our cute, bushy-tailed rodent friends in the trees—squirrels—but the ones on the ground with the long, thin tails. After all, dormice were good enough for the Romans, who basically treated them like today's Iberian farmers do their prized pigs, and fed them a diet of acorns and chestnuts.
Maybe, in our rodent-fearing ways, we are missing out on a whole world of deliciousness.