The New Yorker
July 24, 2000
A Rat in My Soup:
Looking for the best-tasting rodent in town.
By: Peter Hessler
"Do you want a big rat or a small rat?"
the waitress asked.
I was getting used to making difficult decisions
in Luogang, a small village in southern China's
Guangdong Province. I'd come here on a whim,
having heard that Luogang had a famous restaurant
that specialized in the preparation of rats. Upon
arrival, however, I discovered that there were
two celebrated restaurants-the Highest Ranking
Wild Flavor Restaurant and the New Eight
Sceneries Wild Flavor Food City. They were next
door to each other, and they had virtually
identical bamboo-and-wood decors. Moreover, their
owners were both named Zhong-but, then, everybody
in Luogang seemed to be named Zhong. The two
Zhongs were not related, and competition between
them was keen. As a foreign journalist, I'd been
cajoled to such an extent that, in an effort to
please both Zhongs, I agreed to eat two lunches,
one at each restaurant.
The waitress at the Highest Ranking Wild Flavor
Restaurant, who was also named Zhong (in Chinese,
it means "bell"), asked again, "Do
you want a big rat or a small rat?"
"What's the difference?" I said.
"The big rats eat grass stems, and the small
ones eat fruit."
I tried a more direct tack. "Which tastes
"Both of them taste good."
"Which do you recommend?"
I glanced at the table next to mine. Two parents,
a grandmother, and a little boy were having
lunch.The boy was gnawing on a rat drumstick. I
couldn't tell if the drumstick had belonged to a
big rat or a small rat. The boy ate quickly. It
was a warm afternoon. The sun was shining. I made
my decision. "Small rat," I said.
The Chinese say that people in Guangdong will eat
anything. Besides rat, a customer at the Highest
Ranking Wild Flavor Restaurant can order
turtledove, fox, cat, python, and an assortment
of strange-looking local animals whose names do
not translate into English. All of them are kept
live in pens at the back of the restaurant and
are killed only when a customer orders one of
them. Choosing among them involves considerations
beyond flavor or texture. You order cat not just
because you enjoy the taste of cat but because
cats are said to impart a lively jingshen
(spirit). You eat deer penis to improve virility.
Snakes make you stronger. And rat? "It keeps
you from going bald," Zhong Shaocong, the
daughter of the owner of the Highest Ranking Wild
Flavor Restaurant, told me. Zhong Qingjiang, the
owner of the New Eight Sceneries Wild Flavor Food
City, went further. "If you have white hair
and eat rat regularly, it will turn black,"
she said. "And if you're going bald and you
eat rat every day your hair will stop falling
out. A lot of the parents around here feed rat to
a small child who doesn't have much hair, and the
hair grows better."
Earlier this year, Luogang opened a
"restaurant street" in the newly
developed Luogang Economic Open Zone, a parkland
and restaurant district designed to draw visitors
from nearby Guangzhou City. The government
invested a million two hundred thousand dollars
in the project, which enabled the two rat
restaurants to move from their old, cramped
quarters in a local park into new, greatly
expanded spaces-about eighteen hundred square
feet for each establishment. The Highest Ranking
Wild Flavor Restaurant, which cost forty-two
thousand dollars to build, opened in early March.
Six days later, the New Eight Sceneries Wild
Flavor Food City opened, on an investment of
fifty-four thousand dollars. A third restaurant-a
massive, air-conditioned facility, which is
expected to cost seventy-two thousand
dollars-will open soon. A fourth is in the
On the morning of my initiation into rat cuisine,
I visited the construction site of the third
facility, whose owner, Deng Ximing, was the only
local restaurateur not named Zhong. He was
married to a Zhong, however, and he had the
fast-talking confidence of a successful
entrepreneur. I also noticed that he had a good
head of hair. He spoke of the village's culinary
tradition with pride. "It's more than a
thousand years old," he said. "And it's
always been rats from the mountains-we're not
eating city rats. The mountain rats are clean,
because up there they aren't eating anything
dirty. Mostly, they eat fruit-oranges, plums,
jackfruit. People from the government hygiene
department have been here to examine the rats.
They took them to the laboratory and checked them
out thoroughly to see if they had any diseases,
and they found nothing. Not even the slightest
Luogang's restaurant street has been a resounding
success. Newspapers and television stations have
reported extensively on the benefits of the local
specialty, and an increasing number of customers
are making the half-hour trip from Guangzhou
City. Both the Highest Ranking Wild Flavor
Restaurant and the New Eight Sceneries Wild
Flavor Food City serve, on average, three
thousand rats every Saturday and Sunday, which
are the peak dining days. "Many people come
from faraway places," Zhong Qingjiang told
me. "They come from Guangzhou, Shenzhen,
Hong Kong, Macao. One customer came all the way
from America with her son. They were visiting
relatives in Luogang, and the family brought them
here to eat. She said you couldn't find this kind
of food in America."
America, needless to say, you would be
hard-pressed to find twelve thousand fruit-fed
rats anywhere on any weekend, but this isn't a
problem in Luogang. On my first morning in the
village, I watched dozens of peasants come down
from the hills, looking to get a piece of the rat
business. They came on mopeds, on bicycles, and
on foot. All of them carried burlap sacks of
squirming rats that had been trapped on their
"Last year, I sold my oranges for fifteen
cents a pound," a farmer named Zhong Senji
told me. "But this year the price has
dropped to less than ten cents." Like many
other peasants, Zhong decided that he could do a
lot better with rats. Today, he had nine rats in
his sack. When the sack was put on a scale in the
rear of the Highest Ranking Wild Flavor
Restaurant, it shook and squeaked. It weighed in
at just under three pounds, and Zhong received
the equivalent in yuan of a dollar forty-five per
pound, for a total of three dollars and
eighty-seven cents. In Luogang, rats are more
expensive than pork or chicken. A pound of rat
costs nearly twice as much as a pound of beef.
At the Highest Ranking Wild Flavor Restaurant, I
began with a dish called Simmered Mountain Rat
with Black Beans. There were plenty of other
options on the menu-among them, Mountain Rat
Soup, Steamed Mountain Rat, Simmered Mountain
Rat, Roasted Mountain Rat, Mountain Rat Curry,
and Spicy and Salty Mountain Rat-but the waitress
had enthusiastically recommended the Simmered
Mountain Rat with Black Beans, which arrived in a
I ate the beans first. They tasted fine. I poked
at the rat meat. It was clearly well done, and it
was attractively garnished with onions, leeks,
and ginger. Nestled in a light sauce were skinny
rat thighs, short strips of rat flank, and
delicate, toylike rat ribs. I started with a
thigh, put a chunk of it into my mouth, and
reached for a glass of beer. The beer helped.
The restaurant's owner, Zhong Dieqin, came over
and sat down. "What do you think?" she
"I think it tastes good."
"You know it's good for your health."
"I've heard that."
"It's good for your hair and skin," she
said. "It's also good for your
Earlier that morning, I'd met a peasant who told
me that my brown hair might turn black if I ate
enough rat. Then he thought for a moment and said
that he wasn't certain if eating rat had the same
effect on foreigners that it did on the
Chinese-it might do something entirely different
to me. The possibility seemed to interest him a
Zhong Dieqin watched me intently. "Are you
sure you like it?" she asked.
"Yes," I said, tentatively. In fact, it
wasn't bad. The meat was lean and white, without
a hint of gaminess. Gradually, my squeamishness
faded, and I tried to decide what, exactly, the
flavor of rat reminded me of. But nothing came to
mind. It simply tasted like rat.
After a while, Zhong Dieqin excused herself, and
the waitress drifted away. A young man came over
and identified himself as the restaurant's
assistant manager. He wanted to know whether I
had come to Luogang specifically to report on the
restaurants. I said that I had. "Did you
register with the government before you came
here?" he asked.
"Because it's too much trouble."
"You should have done that-- those are the
rules," he said. There was a wariness in his
voice, which I recognized as part of a syndrome
that is pervasive throughout China: Fear of a
"I don't think the government cares very
much if I write about restaurants," I said.
"They could help you," he said.
"They would give you statistics and arrange
"I can find my own interviews. And if I
registered with the government I would have to
take all of the government officials out to
lunch." A scene appeared in my mind: a
gaggle of Communist cadres, middle-aged men in
cheap suits, all of them eating rat. I put my
The assistant manager kept talking. "A lot
of foreigners come to our China to write about
human rights," he said.
He looked at me hard. "Have you come here to
write about human rights?"
"Have I asked you any questions about human
"Well, then, it would be hard for me to
write a story about human rights. I'm writing a
story about Luogang's rat restaurants. It's
"You should have registered with the
government," he said stubbornly.
Next door, at the New Eight Sceneries Wild Flavor
Food City, the Zhongs were more media-savvy. They
asked if I had brought along a television crew.
They looked disappointed when I said that I
hadn't. Then the floor manager brightened and
asked me how I'd liked their competition.
"It was fine," I said.
"What did you eat?"
"Simmered Mountain Rat with Black
"You'll like ours better," she said.
"Our cook is better, the service is quicker,
and the waitresses are more polite."
I decided to order the Spicy and Salty Mountain
Rat. This time, when the waitress asked about my
preference in sizes, I said, pleased with my
boldness, "Big rat."
"Come and choose it."
"Pick out the rat you want."
I followed one of the kitchen workers to a shed
behind the restaurant, where cages were stacked
atop one another. Each cage contained more than
thirty rats. The shed did not smell good. The
worker pointed at a rat.
"How about this one?" he said.
He put on a glove, opened the cage, and picked up
the chosen rat. It was about the size of a
softball. "Is it O.K.?" he said.
"Are you certain?"
The rat gazed at me with beady eyes.
Suddenly, the worker flipped his wrist, swung the
rat into the air by the tail, and let go. The rat
made a neat arc. There was a soft thud when its
head struck the cement floor. There wasn't much
blood. The worker grinned. "You can go back
to the dining room now," he said.
"We'll bring it out to you soon."
"O.K.," I said.
Less than fifteen minutes later, the dish was at
my table, garnished with carrots and leeks. The
chef came out of the kitchen to join the owner,
Zhong Qingjiang, the floor manager, and a cousin
of the owner to watch me eat. "How is
it?" the chef asked.
"Is it too tough?"
"No," I said. "It's fine."
In truth, I was trying hard not to taste
anything. I had lost my appetite in the shed, and
now I ate quickly, washing every bit down with
beer. I did my best to put on a good show,
gnawing on the bones as enthusiastically as
possible. When I finished, I sat back and managed
a smile. The chef and the others nodded with
The owner's cousin said, "Next time you
should try the Longfu Soup, because it contains
tiger, dragon, and phoenix."
"What do you mean by 'tiger, dragon, and
phoenix'?" I asked warily. I didn't want to
make another trip to the shed.
"It's not real tigers, dragons, and
phoenixes," he assured me. "They're
represented by other animals-cat for the tiger,
snake for the dragon, and chicken for the
phoenix. When you mix them together, there are
all kinds of health benefits. And they taste