To put one misconception right out of the way: the Isaan rice rats as eaten by the people of the Isaan are not the same rats you would find in Bangkok or any other city. They are their own species, quite distinct from common rats and are called in English Greater Bandicoot Rat (Bandicota indica).
This is really fascinating stuff, lately picked up by the BBC itself, so read up on it!
Bandicoot rats as pests and endangered species
Isaan rice rats or Bandicoot rats even have a listing in the IUCN Red List for endangered species, where they are listed under the category "lower risk least concern"; rapid urbanization and increasing use of tools and chemicals while planting rice are severely limiting their habitat.
More information, rather very scientific, about the exact relation to common rats and other rodents of the world and even insight into the evolutionary history from palaeontological finds from caves from Thailand an be found on the site of Bucknell University.
Currently, the farmers in Isaan most likely would not agree with the label 'under (light) threat of extinction': Field Rats seem to be extremely common and are seen as dangerous pests; living all year round in the rice fields, they love to eat the soft roots of the growing rice, thereby destroying the plants before they can be harvested. After rice harvest, naturally they go after the rice in its silos and -- as all rodents -- make a bad mess out of it. Clean table manner are clearly not their strong side, but breeding and getting young seemingly is -- so every year anew it is a kind of war between the farmers and the rice rats, with the victims of battle at least on the rats' side ending up on the dinner plate and making up in tasty protein what they have cost in farming income.
Hunting field rats
There are generally two ways of hunting the Isaan rice rats: the father of my girlfriend loves to go out and hunt them with his antique rifle, and from every trip he comes back with easily six or seven of them. Drawback of this method is, that the rats are later riddled with pellets, which might crack your teeth if you hit one of them unlucky. It takes away a lot of the dining pleasure.
The second way is, to catch them in traps, where the rats pass a trigger which brings down a wooden chopper who is fast enough to break their necks. They can be picked up on the next morning but it is of course much less exciting than shooting with a gun all over the place...
Preparing Isaan rice rats for dinner
The small feet and tail are first cut off. Then a cut is made behind the ear so that it is possible to pull the fur off of the main body. After that is done the head is cut off as the head is held onto when pulling the fur off of the body. The rat is then washed in water and a cut is made along its belly to remove all the intestines -- carefully not cutting to deep because this creates a bad smelly mess. The liver and the heart are kept inside the body. The rat is then spread open and placed between a grate for grilling over an open flame until it is completely fried with a burnt like look to it.
The smaller rats are left on the grill just long enough for the meat to be cooked, but still medium rare. Then the small rats are chopped up very finely, small bones and all, until a sort of fine ground meat is made into a paste. The heart and liver are removed before it is chopped up and placed in a separate dish.
Before the rats are prepared for cooking, about two small cups of red chili peppers are ground up with a mortar and pestle until a red chili paste is made. It is this chili paste that the finely chopped rat meat is added and then cooked in oil in a wok. A great deal of garnish and other spices are added which are mentioned in the recipe at the end of this article.
The recipe below would possibly not go down well in your home town (and I am not sure if one can substitute common rat instead, getting Bandicoot Rat somewhere in the west will be tricky).
Keep in mind, this is all just in peoples heads. Isaan rice rats taste surprisingly well, a lot like tender chicken with a little bit of a game taste to it. After just a few bites you will enjoy it just as much as I did -- guaranteed...!
Recipe for ground rat meat and chili paste
- 1/4 cup fish oil
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1-1/2 cups of dried red chili peppers
- 4 long green peppers
- 8 large bay leaves
- 1/2 cup holy basil leaf
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 4 chopped garlic cloves
- 4 small rats
- With a mortar and pestle place the 1-1/2 cups of dried red chili peppers, and begin to mash until a red paste is achieved. Add a tablespoon of water to make moist.
- Chop garlic cloves.
- Place bay leaves in a small bowl of water. Roll two bay leaves at a time and then thinly shred and place in dry dish. Do for all 8 leaves - two at a time.
- Place holy basil leaves in a small bowl of water.
- Dice long green peppers. Do small cross sections so look like wheels and place in dry dish.
- Skin 4 small rats. Clean and place heart and liver in separate bowl.
- Place oil in a wok over an open flame and heat
- Place small rats in a grate, and lightly cook over an open flame on both sides until medium cooked. Do not cook well done.
- Mix red chili paste with hot oil and stir well.
- Finely chop rats on a wood chopping block over and over until makes a smooth ground meat texture. Be sure to chop all the bones well.
- Add chopped rat meat to the red chili paste and oil and stir well.
- Add diced green peppers and stir well. Let cook for 5 minutes.
- Add 1/2 tablespoon of salt.
- Add whole liver and heart and sir in.
- Add holy basil leaves to mixture and stir in well and let cook for another 5 minutes. Be sure not to burn the chili paste - add a little water if necessary to keep moist but not runny.
- Add chopped garlic cloves
- Add shredded bay leaves and stir in and cover and let simmer for 5 minutes or more to let all the flavors mix well.
Serve ground rat meat on an oval dish with livers and heart on the top. Circle with garnish of basil leaves and halves of lime. Serve with white rice. The flavor will be hot and tangy with a mild crunchy chew to it. It is not to be considered the main dish, but a nice hot and spicy accent to other prepared dishes. Surely very good on crackers, but Thais do not generally eat crackers.
Links of Interest:
- Rice Field Rats BBQ a la Isaan Style
- Greater Bandicoot Rat (Bandicota Indica) from Bucknell University
- Greater Bandicoot Rat on the List of Endangered Species
- Ground Field Rat with Chili Paste Recipe
- Larb Noo in Preparation (Image gallery)
- Thailand. Roasted Rats for Sale
- Khorat and Isaan Travel Information