CHIAYI, Taiwan (Reuters Life!) - Diners at two Taiwan village restaurants smell a rat each time they sit down to eat. And they love it.
The Ho-la Diner and the Jiashing restaurant opposite have run five or six rat eateries out of town over nearly six decades of business to become the top two ahead of the Year of the Rat, which begins on February 7.
Both display hairless rat carcasses in their kitchen windows before chopping off the heads and throwing the pint-sized bodies and tails into pots with basil and sweet, black sauce.
Both restaurants are full at meal times as the rat race for gnawing customers reaches fever pitch.
“Competition isn’t too bitter yet, and we like customers to compare the two places,” said Ho-la owner Lin Ming-chih, 54, whose father opened the diner and whose son cooks the rats.
“Most people who come in here at first have a psychological barrier, but once they take a bite, they don’t mind.”
The rats grow up on crops from fields surrounding the 18,000-population village of Lucao in Chiayi county — which means they are not dirty rats from sewers, Lin said.
And Ho-la chef Lin Kuei-chien is proud of his sauce which he keeps secret amid allegations of recipe copying. Customers seeking one restaurant often go in error to the other, the proprietors complain.
Ho-la serves 10 rat-themed dishes, including a rat soup and battered, black pepper-dipped, deep-fried rat. Jiashing serves 12 rat platters, focusing on one similar to the more common kung-pao chicken.
Rat meat, also eaten in China, became popular in rural Taiwan in the 1940s and 1950s among people who could not afford chicken or pork, both restaurateurs said. Then the flavor caught on.
“Rat meat tastes just like chicken, but it takes some getting used to, since we associate rodents with filth and germs,” said customer Dan Bloom, an American-born English teacher. “But these sugarcane-fattened farm rats are simply delicious.”
Despite a sustained following of local customers, other rat meat restaurants have shut down for lack of business, with the most recent closure about five years ago. Both remaining diners go through 18 kg (40 lb) of rat meat per day.
“I wouldn’t say it’s too competitive yet,” said Huang Chen-fu, 38, third-generation owner of Jiashing. “We both depend on tourist drop-ins.”
Editing by Nick Macfie