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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 May 2007, 09:39 GMT 10:39 UK
The politics of food in rural India
Despite the caste system being illegal in India, in many rural areas it is still rife. Stefan Gates goes in search of those at the bottom of society to find out how they cope with the poverty and discrimination they face.

I don't usually go looking for "extreme food".

Stefan leaning out of a car window
Stefan goes to India's most lawless state to meet the "rat eaters"

I always think that programmes about extremes are momentarily titillating but ultimately disappointing.

Nonetheless I do love new food experiences and I always seem to end up eating something weird and wonderful wherever I go.

Perhaps I'm subconsciously drawn to it, or perhaps - as is more likely - my producer cleverly lays them in my path wherever we go, hoping I'll stumble across something that'll make a great headline in the TV preview pages.

Whatever the reason, I've eaten rotten walrus in the Arctic, ant larvae in Mexico, Yak's penis in China, raw sea-slug in Korea, cat in Burma, lamb's testicles in Afghanistan and radioactive soup in Chernobyl.

Actually, that last one was a bit of a mistake - I didn't realise it was radioactive until much later.

Rat eaters

The one strange food that I went actively searching for was rat. Not to get a headline, you understand, but to try to engage with a sub-caste of the Dalit in rural India.

The Dalits are the lowest rung of Hindu society. Although caste discrimination is now illegal in India, in reality it's rife outside the cities and blights the lives of countless millions of people.

The Musahars
The Musahars catch rats from the rice fields and in return for eradicating the rodents, the landowners allow them to take the rats for eating

We went to one of the poorest and most corrupt areas of India - Bihar - where the rural Dalits are locked in a system of poverty and disadvantage.

We went to find one of the lowest sub-sections of the Dalits, the Musahars, roughly translated as "rat eaters".

We visited a village called Paraiya, which was desperately poor.

The inhabitants were almost all landless peasants who worked the land for relatively wealthy landlords.

They were angry too.

If anyone tells you - as people have told me - that rural peasants are happy to live a poor and simple life, I would advise you to ask for proof.

None of the poor people I've met across the world - other than a handful who'd dedicated their lives to religion - were happy with their lot, and all of them were painfully aware of the vast gap between themselves and the wealthy in the West.

'Gruesome perk'

The people of Paraiya understood the inequity of their situation, and railed against their employers, who didn't pay them, barely giving them enough rice to survive on in return for long days working in the fields.

In fact, the only slack that the landowners cut the Musahars is rodent-based.

Food writer Stefan Gates holding two rats
After 10 minutes of so, two tiny rats the size of mice were captured and their necks swiftly broken

The Musahars catch rats from the rice fields and in return for eradicating the rodents, the landowners allow them to take the rats for eating.

It's a gruesome perk but with little other protein available, the rats are a great treat.

We'd been in Paraiya for about an hour, learning about the rice harvest, when someone ran over to tell us that a couple of rats had been spotted in the fields.

We arrived just as two men had pinned the rats in their holes, and were beginning to dig them out.

After 10 minutes of so, two tiny rats the size of mice were captured and their necks swiftly broken.

The men were elated, but they wanted me to try the meat so that we would film the way in which they were forced to live their lives.

Time to dine

Over a tiny fire of old rice stalks and twigs, they burned the fur off the rats, then tugged open their stomach cavities.

After eviscerating them, the rats were roasted over the fire until they looked charred.

Food writer Stefan Gates holding a cooked rat
I rolled the rat in my hand and bit into the leg

They offered the rat to me as an honoured guest.

I pondered it for a moment - was this going to make me ill?

Rats don't seem like the most hygienic animals but these little fellas had been carefully prepared and then thoroughly cooked over flames, so they should be OK.

More importantly I needed to immerse myself in the lives of the Musahars a little if I was going to understand how they lived.

And even more importantly, a crowd of 100 or so had gathered around us and I'm not sure if I could have handled the humiliation of turning it down.

So I rolled the rat in my hand and bit into the leg.

Initially, all I could taste was a mouthful of charcoal but then I could taste a little of the skin and meat. It was like young chicken.

I know there's a myth that every strange food ends up tasting like chicken, but that's usually far from the truth.

Ant larvae taste of cream, grasshoppers often taste of walnuts, cat tastes of well-hung rabbit and rotten walrus tastes, well, like rotten walrus. But roasted rat tastes very much like roasted chicken.

I handed the rat back to my hosts and they demolished the rest of it.

Cooking in the Danger Zone: Superpower foods will be broadcast on Sunday, 11 June, 2007 at 1930 BST on BBC Two,

Country profile: India
18 Apr 07 |  Country profiles


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