Dispatches, August 1998
Ok, it's now official: by formal government decree, cat is off the menu at O Sin, a little restaurant that sits just outside Hanoi in the Vietnamese village of Le Mat. Granted, O Sin still offers many exciting options for the discriminating diner. The proprietor, Nguyen Dinh Hoa — or Mr. Hoa, as he likes to be called — is justifiably proud of his fried snake entr‰es, especially python. He does a nice sideline in monitor lizard, porcupine, and pangolin (a scaly anteater.) And this afternoon, there's a tasty-looking spotted civet pacing in a cage out back.
A favorite of O Sin's kitchen, however, is thit meo nuong, or roast cat — a dish so prized that connoisseurs have been willing to fork over $40 for a black tabby with a long tail and short, succulent legs. And this month, Mr. Hoa finds himself repeatedly having to deliver the same piece of distressing news to his customers: "These days we cannot serve cat; it's against the law."
Quite literally, it turns out. Thanks to an El Niño — induced drought, swarms of the hungry rodents are gnawing their way through rice paddies, granaries, and storage bins all across southeast Asia. It is in Vietnam, however, that the varmints have truly taken over, infesting some 375,000 hectares of fields and consuming at least $9 million in crops. "Rat reproduction rates," says Dam Quoc Tru of Vietnam's Agriculture Ministry, offering up the sort of wild understatement that is the hallmark of an incorrigible bureaucrat, "are very high and continuous."
To battle the scourge, Tru and his colleagues have resorted to some unusual measures. With local officials offering a cash bounty of 2.5 cents for each rat tail brought in, newspapers are encouraging schoolchildren to flush out as many of the pesky critters as they can and beat them to death with sticks and shovels. Farmers have been advised to string electrical wire around their fields, and zookeepers in Hanoi have been releasing snakes from cages. The most controversial move, however, was Prime Minister Phan Van Khai's recent decree aimed at increasing the number of natural rat predators by outlawing cat consumption — an understandable step, perhaps, in a country so fixated on feline dining that tens of thousands of tabbies wind up in the cooking pot every week.
The prime minister's edict has met with an especially poor reception at O Sin, where an embarrassed Mr. Hoa has been turning away disappointed diners by the dozen. "Come back in a few weeks," he suggests with an apologetic bow, "and we'll see what we can do." In the meantime, he recommends the cobra.
Illustration by Gina Triplett