Most cooks do their best to keep rats out of the kitchen, but in Bihar, one of India's poorest states, officials are doing just the opposite. The welfare department there is on a quest to increase the popularity of rodent cuisine. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in New Delhi has the story.
Bihar's welfare department is hoping to solve several problems by putting rats into kitchens. Officials there believe increased human consumption of the rodent will ease the crisis of soaring food prices, provide increased employment for the state's low caste rat catchers and get rid of a pest which eats half of Bihar's precious grain stock.
Leading the quest is the state welfare department's principal secretary, Vijay Prakash. He says rat can become the new chicken.
"Rat and chicken have equal food values, not only in protein, in fact, the entire spectrum of nutrition. You will find they are almost equivalent," said Prakash.
Prakash tells VOA News that except for some of India's most impoverished communities, rats, believed to outnumber people by a seven-to-one ratio here, are not considered enticing by Indians.
"We will have a massive media campaign. We will persuade people to just try it and see whether rats are different from other food," added Prakash. "In fact, whoever has eaten rat says rat is more spongy and is better than even chicken meat."
Prakash admits he has not tried rat himself although his mother finds it delicious. He promises to indulge soon, perhaps at one of Bihar's roadside hotels where the rodent, served roasted, known as patal-bageri, is already a popular appetizer.
"Some of the hotels have now started selling rats, rat meat, here in Bihar. It is being used as a starter," added Prakash.
The state welfare official hopes Bihar's hotels will start a trend that will expand to India's five-star hotels.
Chef P. Soundararajan in Chennai, who oversees food preparation for the 22 properties of the Mahindra resort chain, does not see that happening.
"No way. Indian culture is based on vegetarianism," said Soundararajan. "Our culture, our custom is based on not harming any living beings."
It appears the Biharis might have better luck exporting their rats to China, Southeast Asia, West Africa or even parts of France, where the rodent has traditionally been more welcome on the dinner table.
The stewed giant cane rat is popular in parts of Ghana. Rat is also eaten in Togo. In China the mountain rat is served garnished with ginger and onions. There are Thais who find the rodent a tasty snack served with red chili paste. And rat grilled with lemon grass is on the menu in some Vietnamese restaurants. Some diners say it goes down easier with a generous portion of home-brewed rice wine.