A new vogue for eating domestic cats is sweeping Vietnam, and the resulting cat shortage may be causing plagues of crop-destroying rats and mice. Which raises the obvious question: are housecats and feral cats which would otherwise be out killing rats actually being rounded up and cooked? The question is unasked and unanswered by these reporters.
On a sunny afternoon, Nguyen Thi Thanh Hang wields her cleaver over a stack of freshly skinned carcasses, expecting a busy evening. Today’s special is the same as every day, and business is booming, she says, although not all locals share her enthusiasm for cat meat.
The Vietnamese have only been eating cat for a couple of decades, but their appetite for the dish is growing despite it being banned for most of that time. Aficionados praise the gastronomic and medicinal qualities of ‘little tiger’.
Opponents say the cats are more valuable for hunting rats.
Thai Binh province, 100 kilometres southeast of Hanoi in the Red River delta, is a breadbasket of the country, famous for its agricultural produce, and its cat cuisine, adopted from China in the early 1990s. The streets of its capital, also called Thai Binh, where Hang has been plying her trade for 12 years, are lined with menus featuring pictures of the furry felines.
Hang, 35, says profits are higher than ever, as economic growth has put more money in peoples’ pockets. Customers come from far afield to buy takeaway cat for weddings or other occasions, she says. “Many people from Hanoi come here to buy cat meat as a present to take home,” she explains. “In Thai Binh we cook the meat very well so people want to impress their friends with something special.”
Authorities have not been as impressed as her customers. In 1995, the provincial government outlawed the dish, fearing that a cat shortage was contributing to an infestation of rats. Two years later it introduced a cat-breeding program to help stem the problem.
But the local ban has been impossible to enforce, according to Nguyen Van Hoang, of the provincial trade and industry department. “The market watch team couldn’t do anything because there was no provision for any punishment or fines,” he says.
The prepared meat from the animals, which weigh 1.5kg to 2kg, sells for around $7.50 per kilogram, she says. It is served in a variety of styles, chopped into pieces and fried or boiled, or served with vegetables. Whatever the recipe, it is almost always washed down with copious amounts of rice wine. “Cat meat goes well with alcohol,” Hang says. “People like to come here to have fun with their friends and enjoy a tasty meal.”
Some people also believe cat meat is good for their health, according to Hoang Van Nam, director of the Agriculture Ministry’s Veterinary Department. “They describe cats as ‘small tigers’ and believe eating them will help them become stronger and healthier,” Hoang said.
Like dog meat, cat is considered ‘hot’ according to Chinese traditional medicine, which categorizes the effects of different foods. Eating it at the beginning of the year or month is also supposed to ward off bad luck. But many local farmers argue against eating cats, saying the rat problem is still present.
Nguyen Phan Tien, 42, farms 1,800 square meters of rice paddy on the outskirts of Thai Binh city. In 2010, rats destroyed 360 square meters of his crops. Last year they ate 400 square meters. “I lost 1.8m dong ($85) last year,” he says, almost 10% of the average annual income. “It would not be so bad if there were more cats. Cats are supposed to be nutritious, but I think it’s wrong to eat them.”
Tien’s neighbor, retired farmer Luong Thanh, says his family had to spend $14 on a rat-proof fence for their crop. “There has been a problem with rats for many years because people kill all the cats for meat,” he says. “Lots of people have had their cats stolen, too.”
Officials deny there is any real rat problem, thanks to the free annual distribution of poison. “There is not a big problem now because there are not as many rats as before,” says Nguyen Quang Minh, former director of the Plant Protection Department, under the Agriculture Ministry. “Now people use poison to kill rats and it is very effective,” he adds.
While officials, farmers and diners debate the pros and cons, one provincial official has different criteria. “There used to be too many cats here, that’s why people killed them for food,” he says, requesting anonymity. “In fact, cat meat tastes really nice.”
Marianne Brown and Pham Bac International Blvd
22 Mar 2012