JIANGXI, China: Tucked at the edge of bamboo-covered mountains in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province is a small niche farm that could be China’s answer to its insatiable appetite for meat: Bamboo rats.
Kept as pets by some, these slow-moving rodents look like cute over-sized guinea pigs, but two young vloggers in this farm are breeding them as a source of food.
And they have rocketed to Internet fame by chronicling their day-to-day life on this rat farm.
Asked if the critters were too cute to be killed for food, Liu Suliang, co-owner of Chinese Farm Brothers, quipped: “I’m willing to. It’s just like raising chicken or goats. I can’t possibly send them to university.”
Regarded as agricultural pests, these furry bamboo rats are rodents that feed on the roots of crop plants such as sugar cane, tapioca and bamboo.
But increasingly, they are getting recognised as valuable food animals, and they could be the solution to China’s growing appetite for protein, as the programme China’s Growing Appetite discovers. (Watch the episode here.)
THE MORE ECOLOGICAL SOURCE?
In China, hundreds of millions of people are joining the global middle class, and this rising affluence means they have more money to spend on eating more, and eating better.
The country produces nearly all of its own meat, from poultry to pork to beef.
But its output of meat is expected to hit some 90 million tonnes by 2023 to 2024, an increase of about 30 per cent from 2012, according to a report by the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.
“China’s livestock sector is under pressure from rising costs, disease, environmental regulations and resource constraints,” said the report.
Where the Chinese Farm Brothers come from, there’s not much going on in their inland remote village – there are plenty of abandoned houses as many of the young people there have left for the coastal factories.
The winding hills of their village also means that finding enough flat land to rear cows or even pigs can be difficult.
So mini-livestock like bamboo rats are a much better fit, and they don’t cost very much to rear either - both ecologically and financially.
Liu said that the feed is essentially free as the surrounding area is abundant with bamboo.
The duo started with a modest 50 bamboo rats five years ago, and are now selling some 1,000 rats a year, thanks to their online hit series on how to cook these rodents.
Marketing their unusual produce took quite a bit of ingenuity.
They seemed to have hit a winning formula with their online videos – which usually start with one of them picking up a bamboo rat and declaring that it can’t be saved, and culminating in the rat being grilled.
Liu often appears on camera while his partner Hu Yueqing directs, shoots and edits.
In one video, Liu picks up a lively, squirming rodent and declares: “This rat looks like it has gotten heat-stroke. It doesn’t seem like it has much energy.”
He proceeds to cook and eat the slaughtered rat beside the river.
WATCH: Would you eat this? (3:42)
The two men, who are not actually brothers, have since amassed millions of followers online with their quirky videos, especially on Chinese video sharing site Bilibili.
SAID TO ENHANCE BEAUTY
Some Chinese restaurants have already started serving these rats as a delicacy.
Zhu Zhibao, executive chef of Prosperous Kitchen in Guangdong Province, said that this practice of eating bamboo rats dates back some 1,000 years, and they are particularly popular among the Cantonese.
In fact, the northern part of Guangdong is mountainous and is unsuitable to farm crops or to rear cattle, said Yuan Jiecheng, owner of the restaurant. But there are plenty of rats and snakes.
He said that when they first introduced the bamboo rat dish at the restaurant, it wasn’t well-received by the young until online videos popularised it. Yuan also claims that consuming the bamboo rat is good for one’s skin and “it enhances your beauty”.
Going forward, Liu thinks that there’s huge potential for their rat business as farming tens of thousands of these rodents wouldn’t be a problem.
These rats produce rapidly with three or four litters a year. And the newborns can rapidly grow from 10 grams to 2 kg in just six months.
“Right now, supply can’t meet demand. When more people know about bamboo rats, more people will want to eat,” he added. “If one person eats just one rat, the demand would be enormous.”