"Free-range" rats fattened on fields of sugar cane are not lip-smackingly succulent, but they're tasty in a decent sauce. Ants have a bitter taste and will never be a mouthwatering main meal - even if they do regulate the immune system, keep black hair from going gray and reduce blood sugar levels.
For the average Westerner, stepping outside the comfort zone when dining in Taipei is easy to do, whether its slurping stinky tofu at the night market, or nibbling on chicken claws at KTV. However, the adventurous will head to a nondescript village called Hsiching (西井), in Chiayi County (嘉義縣), and a restaurant called Ho-la that's been open over 56 years.
"It was common in the old days to eat rodents in the countryside," according to owner Lin Ming-chih (林銘志). Other sources of meat weren't available and rat was a palatable source of protein. Locals used to bring their own when his father started the restaurant, Lin said. His son now works in the kitchen.
Ho-la, which has room on two floors for over 130 diners, is famous in Japan and China. Business is so good there are six other copycat restaurants nearby. Large photographs on the wall show off the signature dishes, which include different kinds of grubs, crickets, chicken gonads, scorpions, bees, freshwater turtles, worms and sparrows. Sushi, deer and frog are also available but seem tame by comparison.
Going as a group is best since you can try more. Our rat was cooked in the "three cups" style and passed the "eight-year-old test," which meant the young girl in our party ate it with relish. It was sweet, had rabbit colored flesh and everyone agreed it was tender. Over 6,000 black ants were sacrificed for the omelet and this came with sesame seeds and dried shrimp to counter the acidic taste. We also had a flavorsome betel nut and chicken soup and the owner served up an excellent marinated pigskin with bitter gourd, on the house.
Lin travels the globe in search of novel edible delights and recipes to cook them. He has to import many of the delicacies on the menu. Apparently, local ants are not as tasty as China's black ants. Even the worms are a special variety. No endangered species are served up, Lin said.
"For me, these foods are not strange. In fact it's strange that people think they are strange. After all, food is what you can eat and what is good for you. Most people are boring when it comes to food."
Address: 578 Hsiching Village, Lutsao Township, Chiayi County (嘉義縣鹿草鄉西井村578號)
Telephone: (05) 375-0660/(05) 375-0756
Open: From 11am to 9pm
Average meal: Main meal around NT$1,800 for a group of six
Details: Visit www.ho-la.com.tw