In Search of Rat Soup

29 comments

rat soup in San cristobal Mexico

Okay, normally I would say that I’m the only person weird enough to actually go out of my way (twice!) to eat rat soup. But I met a fellow Texan named Jon and explained how I’d hoped to try the rumored local Mayan delicacy and he –for some reason– thought it sounded like a good idea. Weirdo.

I’d tried once before, while riding a rented bike, to visit the Mayan Tzeltlal town of Oxchuc which is only a few hours ride from San Cristobal de las Casas. But after arriving in nearby Cancuc, where I was supposed to turn south for Oxchuc, I found a blocked road. It wasn’t surrounded by Zapatistas, as is fairly common in these parts, but instead was blocked by torn-up pavement and rubble.

A kind local had tried to explain to me how to work my way around the roadblock but with my poor Spanish, time running out, and the complete lack of signage, I’d decided to just return home the way I knew.

I’d have to pass on the rat soup. Some things just aren’t meant to be.

But now, two weeks later, I’m swapping beers and lies with Jon on one of the main tourist paths in San Cristobal watching the crowd flow by.

He’s from Houston, based here for awhile. And for some reason, he’s willing — hell, excited– to spend a day searching for a soup made from everyone’s favorite vermin. He has a rented car which, through some fluke of database programming, he’s paying a ridiculously cheap rate. I don’t know how he did it.

The guidebook claims that the best day to find rat soup is Saturday, the biggest market day. Now, I have to admit that this guide is a 2009 edition — this means it’s three years past it’s publication date and probably five years out of date. But still, I’d know nothing about rat soup if not for reading it in the guidebook so I can’t complain.

These are not wild rats — they are raised in pens and fed various medicinal herbs. Rat soup cures a lot of ails. So the story goes.

Regardless, we’re in the car and making our way out of town.

There are really only four ways to leave San Cristobal, each roughly in one of the cardinal directions. And each is surprisingly different. This route is as mountainous and twisty as the others but much more lush. It’s green and beautiful — I’d make this trip for the scenery alone. Screw the rats.

Steep drops, twisty uneven roads and the ubiquitous speed bumps called topas, which are quite a pain in the ass –literally– keep the speeds down on the way. But I don’t care. The views are astounding, with green valleys hidden behind each turn of the road. Some lie at least 1,000 feet below.

With no guard rails, it’s not the best place to lose your concentration. The occasional passing bus or truck also help to keep you on your toes.

In exchange for the danger, we’re rewarded with amazing views of not only this beautiful rough land, but small town Mayan culture — which is very much it’s own thing.

Women weave intricate designs in their front yards on hand-made looms. Small children walk along side the road with huge loads of firewood on their back, carried by a strap across their forehead. Old men prowl the side of the road with toothless smiles, cowboy hats and machetes. Most people here wear their traditional dress of wool and brightly-dyed fabrics and they don’t do it for the tourists. There are no tourists.

Mayans seem to me to be a very shy people (reminding me of Laos) but if you smile and make eye contact they light up. You just have to make the first move. All it takes is a nod.

Rarely have two hours gone by so quickly. We soon find ourselves in our destination, Oxchuc, which is a lot bigger and busier than we expected. Finding the market is no problem, as it’s really pretty much impossible to avoid. Finding parking is the trickier part.

Collectivos line the streets, taking up all the free space and we spend a good ten minutes looking for a spot that doesn’t seem to be spoken for. In the end we park in front of a tire shop and hope we won’t get towed. Do they tow here? Or is that just an American malady?

And the market? It’s huge. It’s massive. And being Saturday, it’s packed. It’s the prototypical Latin American market, packed with everything from vegetables to raw fly-ridden meat… grilled chicken, tacos, plastic buckets, shoes, jeans, mops, tools, Hello Kitty umbrellas — everything you need to survive in the modern Mayan world.

But what they don’t seem to have is rat soup.

We ask everywhere (Jon is even more determined than I am). But we’re greeted only with confused looks and sometimes outright shock. “Sopa de raton?! Que?”

Maybe it’s a language issue? Jon’s Spanish is about as good as mine (which means it sucks) but we’ve both forgotten this is a Mayan town. Both of us try desperately, in pidgin Spanish, to ask for clues to finding rat soup from a poor, confused street vendor who only speaks Tzeltlal. He smiles and just shakes his head, either not understanding or just thinking we’re insane.

It’s as if we’re asking for directions in Paris while speaking Russian. Hopeless.

But then again, I can’t help thinking, it’s pretty damned cool to be in a place in Mexico where they don’t speak Spanish. Their local dialect is probably over 1,000 years old and going strong.

We eventually figure out that rat is “rata” in Spanish. “Raton” is “mouse”. It makes no difference. To make things worse, we’re the only two gringos in the market (probably the entire town) and we’re both a foot taller than the average person here. We don’t exactly blend in and we’re asking for rat soup. Tough sell.

Children whisper “gringos!” excitedly as we pass by.

We’re about to give up when we see it: a sweet Mayan women has a small blanket spread on the walkway (I started to say “old Mayan woman” but the truth is she’s my age, but with some harder years behind her). And there they are. Rats. Fat ones, too, about ten of them piled high and just freshly dead. Limp.

I cannot attest to the herbal or medicinal qualities but these are, apparently, healthy fat rats.

To the side she has several that are skinned and smoked — dried rat carcasses. I have no idea how you’re supposed to eat those — like buffalo wings? Maybe on a stick? I don’t know.

Four dried rats for 100 pesos. I don’t know what the fresh ones go for. She’s actively stuffing them into a plastic bag for a customer so I assume it’s a good deal — her stock goes from ten to two in just a couple in moments. What do rats go for here, anyway?

I spot them first but Jon is on the scene faster with his point-and-shoot. I’m about to pull out the DSLR when I notice what a crowd we’re drawing. Thirty seconds ago she had five customers — now she has at least fifty. They don’t see many gringos around here and frankly, I think they’re hurting for entertainment. The bigger crowd just makes more people want to see just what the hell is going on over there so it’s growing exponentially.

I wanted the shot (of course) but frankly I can’t reach the scene without stomping on someone about half my size and that’s just not friendly. Seeing how everyone is reacting to his point and shoot, I’m a bit reluctant to break out the SLR and look like a “professional photographer”. In the end, Jon has to pay the lady 50 pesos to take photos. He’s happy with the price.

He finally fights his way through the still-growing crowd to escape and we decide to have lunch at the nearby grilled chicken spot — a full chicken roasted over coals for 50 pesos ($3.50 US).

It isn’t rat soup, but it isn’t bad.

 

  

For Jon’s version of this adventure check out LifePart2. And look around his site – he’s a great photographer and graciously allowed me to use his photo for this post.

This post was created on an iPad so please forgive any typos or general goofiness. I blame autocorrect.

29 comments on “In Search of Rat Soup

  1. Ready to make it three attempts!

  2. How did I not hear of this while I was there? I’d definitely try it, everything in Mexico is delicious so this should be as well.

  3. LOL! Eating smoked rat “like buffalo wings”! Too bad you didn’t get to try it! I’m sure it probably tastes just like chicken – doesn’t everything?

  4. I really think that the third time might work….

    Good read! It looks like the Ipad is working well. Looking forward to your evaluation of blogging on it.

  5. Excellent article. I had some grilled chicken at the side of the road in the mountains of Mexico last year. Much better than the restaurants….

  6. Excellent article! And I can hardly believe its written in an iPad.
    Unbelievable where you get :)

    Speed Bumps = Topes, not Topas :)

    Cheers!

  7. I do not know if I would go so far out of my way to find it, but I might try it.

  8. I remember once seeing opened rats pinned splayed out on a wooden board drying in the sun in Cambodia. I did wonder what people actually use dried rats for…

  9. Next time I want to go along for the ride but I’ll leave the eating of rats to you crazy men…

  10. Yikes, rat soup! Fingers crossed that the third time’s a charm (and that it exceeds all your expectations when you find it :)

  11. I cracked up at the local reactions. Por que el loco gringos quieres sopa de raton? LOL I’ve seen a similar reaction from our maid Lorena when I mangle a sentence. I just love the thought of the locals thinking “Who the hell eats rat soup? These gringos are crazier than I thought!” LOL

  12. I’d love to join in on a rat soup hunt but unfortunately my diet strictly forbids the eating of Rat – otherwise……

    Tristan

  13. I may have had rat soup — or at least chicken soup made with stock that might have had rat in it in Laos. (My travel story about rat soup http://bit.ly/I9yeun ) You could take your hunt over there!

  14. Never have I had rat soup on my list of things to try, but I did really want to eat roasted guinea pig in Peru. Unfortunately, my trip got cancelled. Might have to settle for rat soup in the end…. if you eat it, let me know how it tastes!! ;)

  15. Oh my god, I cannot image that I eat the rat soup. There is a special and famous dried rat in my countryside, but I don’t have the courage to eat it.

    • John Caddell on said:

      Dear Gunnar: I had a reason to go on line to look up an old yacht and I came up with you wonderful father’s name and a trip he made south to Miami on an old(1940) Elco yacht in the middle of winter! This brought me to trying to find you to wish you well and to find out if your mother is still with us? I saw your picture and, like me at a very young age, I see that you have gone grey! Very distinguished! Such many fond memories and some day hopefully Jill and I can see you to reminisce. We go by the Berry Islands often on YOREL and don’t call for you anymore as they tell us that you have moved on. Let us know how you are! Stay well and Cheers! John Caddell

  16. I heard rats were popular noshing in Thailand but didn’t realise the same was true in Mexico. It would solve a few problems in London if this took off there..!

  17. That sounds like one heck of an adventure for rat soup!
    …And only to end up with roasted chicken. Doh!

    On a side note:
    In Mexico is there half as much of a chance of getting kidnapped for ransom, or caught in the crossfire of a cartel shootout, as the mass media has lead me to believe?

  18. I’m not sure I would ever go through that much to sample rat soup! You two must have been hilarious and quite the town’s entertainment for the week! I think you lucked out with the chicken…if it really was chicken!! It might have been rat…you know they say everything taste like chicken! lol :)

    Sally

  19. What a great story!. You know in little towns your car is not likely to be towed but I have heard of tires being slashed if you´re really in someones way.

  20. I must say I share you curiosity for the stranger side of the culinary world. I have to know, what does a dried rat smell like???

  21. ha ha! what a nice article! rat soup is not one of the things i gonna try, but i also guess it tastes like chicken!

  22. STAFFORD COWLES on said:

    Nope, it doesn’t taste like chicken. More like shredded pork. Many years ago, when this guy Alley OOP and I were wandering around… I had the chance to try a rat stew. It was in Vietnam, 1968. I was in the Army, and we were positioned in a huge rice paddy, a few miles south of Saigon. ( Ho Chi Minh City today.) We had been stuck there for several days, waiting for some action. We had gotten very tired of the issued “C” rations.

    When you are in the poverty level the local Vietnamese were, a delicacy like rat meat, is like rabbit to a good ole boy from Alabama. There are an abundance of rats wandering around in the jungles, and rice paddies. The folks cut a narrow slot in the rice paddy dykes, and the rats use these alleyways to traverse from one paddy to another. They don’t like to wander around on top of the mud dykes for fear of predators. They make a rat trap by pounding 3″ spikes through a board just wide enough to fit into the slot. Then they pile a huge mound of mud on top of the board. They prop the board up by very carefully balancing it on top of a thin stick. The rat runs through the slot, disrupts the stick, and SLAM!! Down comes the heavy mud weighted spike board, impaling the rat. The farmer then can look all around his rice paddy, and when he doesn’t see the rounded mound of mud sticking up above the level of the dyke, he knows he has a rat.

    So there we were, sitting for several days out in a vast rice paddy. We were ready to try anything different to eat. One afternoon, along came a “Mamasan” with the bamboo broomstick slung across her shoulder. On one end of it hung a bucket of rice, and on the other, was some sort of fricasse gravy. One of the guys who was on his second tour, knew it was rat stew. He encouraged us to buy some from the Mamasan. We did…. WOW!! Not Bad. It was great over the rice. And it DID NOT TASTE LIKE CHICKEN!! It had more of a flavor of shredded pork. It looked like dark roast beef that was way overcooked, and stringy, shredded. We all liked it and we made arrangements for her to return for the next four days with more. It only cost us about 50 cents, in G.I. Scrip. And from a squad of men, it was a fortune for her each day.

    Has anyone else out there tried this? I’d love to read your comments.

  23. It’s so weird to contemplate eating animals that American’s find so contaminating, but plenty of cultures do it. Think about all the bugs people eat!
    Morgan recently posted..Rich Travel Blueprint: London, EnglandMy Profile

  24. hahaha! “I don’t know what the fresh ones go for” That paints a great picture! Rats are pretty tasty if you close your eyes, the country rates, anyway. Did they leave the rat heads in the soup for the broth? That’s a surprise on your spoon. Love your writing!
    Brad Bernard recently posted..The Most Macabre Meat Market: Tomohon, SulawesiMy Profile

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