Foreign Flavors: Mealtime in Vietnam

I stopped mid-bite and put down my chopstick.

“You’re eating rat?!” I stared at the meat-eating table next to me.

For the past week our group of 13 UM students had been sitting at segregated tables during lunch—vegetarians and non-vegetarians. In the past five days, the vegetarian table had almost doubled, swelling from five to nine. It was our final week in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, day 21 out of 24 of our course with UM’s climate change studies program. Our palates had been tested to the max.

Since landing in Ho Chi Minh City on Dec. 28th, 2014, all manner of dishes had graced my plate. So far, I had eaten catfish-head soup at a shrimp farmer’s house—when I dipped the ladle into the steaming pot, I came up with a severed head with eyes, whiskers, teeth and all. I had taken a huge bite out of what I thought was a sweet pastry, only to come away with a mouthful of preserved egg swathed in bean paste. Pregnant shrimp and egg-laden crabs had passed across my tongue. Spicy peppers had left my mouth singed and eyes watering for hours

Many of the dishes were actually quite good—if I could forget what I was eating. But that didn’t always work out. The mental image that I was eating crab eggs superseded the fact that they reminded me of scrambled eggs, both in texture and taste. And having a fish stare back at me didn’t exactly boost my appetite. Meal time was always an adventure. It was as if those meals represented a microcosm of my entire trip: uncomfortable, foreign, yet surprisingly good.

Now, at the table next to me, another adventure awaited: a plate of whole-roasted rats. The claws were still there. The whiskers were still there. The eyes were still there. They had not been gutted, just skinned and skewered. These rats were a local attraction. The open-air terrace where we were eating was deep within Tram Chim National Park, a wetland preserve near the border of Cambodia. In order to attract more Vietnamese tourists, the park administers were developing new ecotourism opportunities. Visitors could spend a day with a rice farmer, they could go fishing, or, as of this year, they could hunt mice and rats in the fields nearby.

Judging by the size of the rats on the table next to me, rodent hunting looked exhilarating. Naturally, I wanted to see what rat tasted like—and I was in a prime position. As a member of the vegetarian table, I could snag a bite of rat and duck back to my table, without any obligation to finish the creature.

I leaned over, “Can I try just a bite?”

The meat table generously passed over one of the roasted creatures. I grasped at a piece of the rat’s muscular leg. My chopsticks slipped on the greasy meat. I finally tore off a bite-sized piece and popped it in my mouth.

The flavors of fried chicken and intense grease exploded in my mouth. Like so many of my experiences in Vietnam, I was pleasantly taken aback, my horizons forever expanded. Rat was delicious.

Journalism graduate student Shanti Johnson spent the winter session in Vietnam, conducting research for her master’s project while taking two courses with UM’s Climate Change Studies department. She will be returning to the Mekong Delta later this year to finish reporting.

– Shanti Johnson