First of all, let it be known that I like meat.
Chicken, beef, turkey, pork; it’s all good. While I’m by no means shy of vegetables or fish, I love to cook, and there are few meals that I enjoy more than a good chicken curry, a classic beef lasagne, home-made hamburgers, or a nice, simple, piece of medium-rare steak.
But when food comes to me with its face still intact, I’m not so happy.
In the past, a few vegetarians have told me “If you couldn’t bring yourself to kill and prepare meat then you shouldn’t eat it.” Personally, I wouldn’t care to chop down a tree and painstakingly make individual sheets of paper, either, but I’m still happy to use the stuff on a daily basis, but even if it makes me a wimp, or immoral, I’m still happy to eat meat so long as I don’t have to get my hands dirty. So long as there are no eyes looking up at me from the plate, and preferably nothing that screams “I used to be alive, you know!”, I’m happy to tuck in.
So when I came across ITMedia writer Wataru Kato’s first-hand experience of eating a whole, roasted rodent, it was with both a curious mind and a slightly churning stomach that I read on, wondering whether, were I presented with the same dish, I could bring myself to eat it, let alone sit with it staring back at me.
The rodent in question is a specially bred Peruvian guinea pig, quite far removed from the kind of creature you might spot scuttling down a dark alley or up a drain pipe.
Nevertheless, we recommend tackling this particular story after you’ve finished your next meal.
Hold on to your lunch…
The Peruvian guinea pig is reported to be both low in cholesterol and a great source of protein, making it a comparatively healthy meat. The animals are clean, docile, and have been eaten in Peru for hundreds of years, with the average guinea pig being much bigger than those most people are used to keeping as pets, thanks to their daily diet of food scraps from the household by which they are kept.
During a trip to Peru, Wataru sat down to try the country’s national dish, and documented the entire process for us all to see.
Imagine, ladies and gents, being presented with this…
Feeling queasy yet?
Guinea pigs are prepared very similarly to other meats, with the hair removed immediately after it has been killed, then the internal organs (shall we say “giblets” to save our stomachs?) carefully removed before the entire thing is immersed in boiling hot water to cook through. Finally, the guinea pig is roasted along with vegetables like carrots, beans and peppers before being generously seasoned and plonked down on the plate… whole.
As a man who struggles with any meat that still resembles its former, living, self, and prefers not to eat even chicken from the bone, I’m not sure I could handle this particular dish, healthy or otherwise…
Try as I might to keep an open mind, that looks awfully like a roasted rat to me, and brings back memories of the post-apocalyptic adventure game Fallout, with its “squirrel bits” snacks and mutated cockroach meat… <shudder>
But how did the brave diner get on with the dish?
“It’s surprisingly like chicken;” (Isn’t everything?) “It’s a firm, sinewy meat, and didn’t have a particularly strong smell. Honestly, I think if they couldn’t see what they were eating, most people would believe this to be chicken,” said Wataru. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m happy to take his word for it…
“Though I had to be careful of the little bones while eating, there was plenty of meat; so much, in fact, that it would probably be enough for two people to share.”
Hmmm…I’m still not convinced. Roasted guinea pig might not make the most romantic meal to share. I mean, the arguments over who gets to eat the head alone would be terrible…
But Wataru definitely earned his pay here, and, having picked the bones clean, assure us that the dish should not be avoided based on simple preconceptions.
“There must be food that we Japanese eat on a regular basis that people in other countries would be surprised at, just as how we couldn’t believe our eyes when someone places a roasted guinea pig on the table,” he quite rightly suggest.
Since moving to Japan some six years ago, I can honestly say that I’ve become a much less fussy eater, and now regularly eat food that I might never have dared touch before. Raw squid and octopus? No problem. Deep-fried chicken cartilage? Sure. Fermented soy beans? Why not. Stir-fried tanuki tail…? OK, so the last one is a dirty, filthy lie, but you get the point…
Food that one person may think of as completely disgusting might be as normal as a ham and cheese sandwich to someone else. It’s all about perceptions and exposure.
During a 12-month Japanese language course I took last year, I had the pleasure of meeting people from all over the world, sharing personal experiences of life in Japan, learning a lot about other cultures, customs and ways of thinking. Because we were all students of the Japanese language, we found ourselves in the unique position of having a room full of people of from all over the globe, but whose shared language was the same, and were able to communicate more or less freely. Stereotypes were challenged, questions were asked and myths dispelled on a near daily basis.
One day, turning to the Korean girl sitting next to me, I broached the subject of Koreans eating animals that we in the west would never dream of, and asked whether it was true, as I was once informed by an adamant Japanese friend, that Koreans eat both cat and dog meat.
Being a cat owner since I was a just a child, the thought of anyone eating anything that resembled one of my furry little pals shocked me, but I tried to phrase the question as neutrally as possible:
“I once heard that some Koreans actually eat cat and dog meat. That’s just a myth, though, right?”
The girl looked at me with an expression of abject horror. “Cat meat!? Oh my goodness no! How awful! Of course we don’t.”
Realising how stupid it sounded, I apologising for asking such a ridiculous question, but then realised that she hadn’t mentioned dogs in her answer… So, was that part of the myth, too?
“Oh, yeah, we eat dog,” she replied as calmly as if I’d asked her whether her people ate rice.
Culture plays an enormous role in our perceptions and established ideas. There are people out there who wouldn’t touch pork, whereas others will happily fry up a few slices of bacon but positively retch at the notion of eating frogs’ legs or snails. Similarly, to my Korean friend, the idea of eating a cat was hideous, but tucking in to a little canine meat didn’t phrase her in the slightest.
Maybe it’s about time we sat down to a roasted guinea pig and opened our minds a little…?
Enjoy your dinner, guys.