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The time I ate rat

How to join the rat race

Dominic Ziegler, The Economist’s Banyan columnist, tries some roast rodent in Sulawesi

Dominic Ziegler, The Economist’s Banyan columnist, tries some roast rodent in Sulawesi

Dominic Ziegler | October/November 2018

I am eating a rat fricassée only because the cheerful, crowded restaurant on market day in northern Sulawesi is clean out of bat. It is my first trip to the island, which lies between Borneo and the Spice Islands. It is known on old British classroom maps as the Celebes – a name signifying such exotic remoteness that it’s had a pull on me ever since I was in short trousers.

My enthusiasm is starting to fray. A deft hand has flavoured the dish with tamarind and coconut. But there is no getting round the fact that the piece of meat in my bowl is a rodent’s huge hind leg. I take it in my fingers and gnaw at the flesh, sucking the bones clean with feigned pleasure to please my host, Yanti, who counts rat as her favourite dish.

Since you ask: no, rat does not taste like chicken. Mine boasted metallic undercurrents amid a general pungency that made me nearly wretch. I persevered. After all, who honestly relished their first oyster? And to be culturally judgmental brings shame upon any open-minded journalist. Yanti watched with satisfaction until I had devoured every last morsel. Then she reached into her own bowl, took a mouthful and grimaced. “This rat”, Yanti declared, beckoning to the waitress, “is off!” My innards heaved, my head swam.

I am in Sulawesi to learn about the bushmeat trade. Northern Sulawesi is home to the Minahasa people – and to an extraordinary diversity of wildlife. Conservationists in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, had told me how Minahasans pride themselves on eating bushmeat. The market at Tomohon, a highland town surrounded by lush green countryside and towering volcanoes, is notorious, even among locals like Yanti. A wide range of species is sold there, not counting the domestic dog: warty pig, reticulated python, flying fox, the fruit bat and (my nemesis) the Sulawesi giant rat. Carcasses are displayed in serried rows: blackened with a blow torch to burn off the fur, their charred faces set in a rictus grin. Not for nothing is the market in Tomohon known as the pasar ekstrim, the extreme market.

Before special feast days, other, illegal specimens that find their way to the market slabs, including the Celebes crested macaque, a large jet-black monkey, and a tree-dwelling marsupial, the Sulawesi bear cuscus. The island straddles a faunal boundary between Asia and Australasia and is rich in species that are found only there. Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Darwin’s contemporary and co-discoverer of evolution, was the first to describe this boundary: the famous Wallace Line.

In my ignorance, I came to Sulawesi expecting the bushmeat trade to be accompanied by a primitive, somewhat brutal way of living – wildlife as an essential source of protein. Reading Wallace should have disabused me. He was charmed by life in Tomohon. His classic, “The Malay Archipelago” (1869), describes fresh-painted houses with verandas and neat balustrades, gardens planted with orange trees and streets lined with rose bushes in perpetual flower. When a local Minahasan invited Wallace to an immaculate dinner he was served “a fricassée of bats”.

Wallace described how Minahasans thrived under their Dutch colonial overlords, abandoning head-hunting and adopting Christianity, educational advancement and merchant habits. Minahasans today are well educated and relatively prosperous. The gardens are as exuberant as they were in Wallace’s day. In Tomohon and surrounding villages, rivalries among competing congregations have led to an orgy of church-building. Christian crews shaking buckets stop the traffic to solicit donations.

Even well-off Minahasans patronise the market. I speak to a smart woman, with two teenagers in tow, who is inspecting a slab piled with wild boar and dog meat. Relatives are visiting from afar and she wants something special, but there is no macaque that day.

The demand is emptying local forests of wild species. Fewer than 6,000 macaques survive, and even fruit bats are less plentiful. A few days later I’m in a cloud forest, one of the few Sulawesi reserves able to keep market hunters out. Above, an adorable cuscus moves through the canopy.

Yanti says that at Easter and Christmas Minahasan pastors are guaranteed to eat well in their congregations’ homes. Back in Jakarta, conservationists had told me what a difference it would make if preachers thundered from their pulpit against the illegal bushmeat trade. Amen to that, I think, as I stand in awe in this forest cathedral.