My landlady Lila comes by early on a Thursday morning to collect the rent. It’s about 8:00 am and a deep mist hovers over the back garden. It does that in Kenya this time of year.
I’m feeling a bit misty myself, having just woken up from a bit of a “lie-in”, as they say in Ireland. Still in PJs and without my glasses, the world is blur to me. “What’s that gray blob?” I ask my landlady, and we both start heading towards the end of the porch. I’m thinking that perhaps someone has left us a large sack of potatoes from their kitchen garden.
But waiting for us in the misty morn is no neighborly sharing of veg. It is the biggest, ugliest rodent I’ve ever seen in my life, dead as a doornail. I mean HUGE compared to anything I’ve encountered of such species, the size of a cocker spaniel who’s been quite well fed. “I think it’s a Cane Rat,” Lila says brightly. I am momentarily freaked by the creature and shuddering visibly. “Yes, I think so. Look at those teeth!” The chompers in question are long and columnar. The Cane’s bottom and top teeth protrude directly from the end of his pug nose, unaligned, giving this erstwhile grasscutter a bucktoothed grimace. “They’re herbivores,” Lila reassures me, gamely turning the creature over with the toe of her sandal. Eeewww.
I am speechless staring at this bristly, grey-haired monstrosity, in complete rigor mortis and decorating my “Welcome” mat. The rat’s three-toed feet are clutched in a death throe, his body curved in almost a fetal position as if he died in his sleep. His ears are small and round, the size of dandelions, his face is square-ish. I imagine that if he were furrier, he’d resemble a guinea big. (Except for the larger-than-life bit.) I can’t even look at the tail, imagining it to be as thick and wide as a garden hose.
“Sandy must have killed him,” adds Lila in her plummy Oxford accent, pointing to her overly-eager Ridgeback. “Look at how proud she is.” “Christ on a bike, what do we do with him?” I mutter. “Oh, I’ll have John take him to the bin. Or perhaps we’ll burn him. They roast them as a delicacy in the bush, you know.” She is delighted with herself.
This herbivore has immediately made quite an impression upon me. I’m sure he’s been the Night Thief haunting our downstairs and leaving ghost-like paw prints of red mud across the counter tops. Last week, something dragged the pet Biltong (a kind of jerky) into the middle of the living room.
Cane curiosity piqued, I start delving online. I Google said rat and discover that they are denizens of sub-Saharan Africa and can grow up to 10 kg (22 lbs to you and me) and two feet long. I’m very disturbed by a picture of a man holding a live one over his shoulder. The Cane could easily mistaken for a baby donkey, it’s that big.
What’s more, I find two outrageous links:
1) Cane Rats for Sale – London: “Many people do not believe that Cane Rats can make for good pets. Why not give them a try!”
2) Cane Rats – The Congo Cookbook [to paraphrase]: Whether considered fine dining, a favorite pet or a pesky species, the Cane Rat is a valued source of protein, known for its tasty tenderness. Usually caught in the wild, this herbivore is consumed in rural areas and sold in urban markets just like other bushmeat. The Cane Rat is commonly used in traditional African stews and soups.
But the Zaire cookbook, Where There is No McDonald’s, gives me the greatest pause. Here for your pleasure is a rat recipe not to be missed, but only if you’re stuck somewhere in the bush with no MREs in sight.
Place a dozen smoked rats (the small field-rat type) in fresh water and soak for 30 minutes. Prepare a sauce of tomato, onion, pimento and palm oil in a large skillet. Drain the rats and remove skin and other inedible portions. (?) Fry for about 20 minutes, turning occasionally until well-cooked. A true connoisseur eats them piping hot, bone and all!!!
Serving tips: Usually offered as an hors-d'oeuvre, they also are delightful arranged on a platter of carrots, lettuce, and cauliflower. Or just slide them on a hot dog bun…