One of my go-to sources for news every morning is the U.K.’s tabloid of record, The Sun. It's usually a useful window to some important stuff going on in the world. So color me surprised when I chanced upon the following headline as I sipped my morning coffee—“RAT'S DISGUSTING! Russian restaurant serves up RAT burger to diners saying the meat has health benefits.”
Rat burgers. What a world. (I know what you’re thinking: man, this site is going downhill fast. Why write about a rat burger? Disgusting!) Type the words “rat burger” into Google and you’ll get an algorithmic suggestion for the phrase “ratburger,” which corresponds to a delightful piffle of a children’s book. Ugh. No, Google…that’s not what I meant. But this is unsurprising. When coupled, the words “rat burger” are anathema to most people’s tastebuds: It’s a phrase that is the stuff of alarmist studies about what’s really in your burger, as if our fast food restaurants are trying to poison us.
Last Friday, The Guardian’s Moscow correspondent Shaun Walker reported that 35-year-old restauranteur Takhir Kholikberdiev’s Krasnodar Bistro, located in Moscow, has begun to serve what’s known as the nutria burger. As the name implies, it’s derived from the meat of, nutria, a hulking semiaquatic rodent with orange chompers. (It's also known as the "river rat," or coypu.) The offering sits beside the nutria hotdog, nutria dumplings, and cabbage leave-ensconced nutria on the restaurant's menu.
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“It’s a really clean animal; not only is it a herbivore but it washes all its food before it eats,” Kholikberdiev told The Guardian of the nutria. "And it’s very high in omega-3 acids. A lot of doctors and dietitians recommend it.” The Guardian piece details how nutrias tend to reproduce a lot, making them easy to farm, though the trend of cooking nutria into burgers is a new culinary frontier for Moscow.
This Guardian story has already been aggregated ratherfeverishly, because of course—what an irresistible headline. Here’s the thing, though: One thing I haven’t seen tackled is that nutria meat isn’t even new. And it certainly isn't the Russia-bred monstrosity these headlines may suggest.
Peep this article from Deseret News that’s nearly two decades old. “Hungry for a nutria burger?” its headline asks. “Louisiana has a treat for you.” It goes on to briefly detail how the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries had received over $2.1 million in federal funding to develop a nutria meat industry. Indeed, nutria meat has been the foundation of burgers—and a lot of other dishes—for a long time in Louisiana, a state whose swamps have been overrun with these rodents since they came up through the wetlands in the 1930s, and they have since begun to gnaw Louisiana's coastline into oblivion. Last year, former Food52 Writer-in-Residence Sarah Baird wrote a piece on nutria meat for Modern Farmer, and Louisiana's unending attempts to curb its alarmingly libidinous population since the 1950s. One of the methods has, as of late, involved turning its carcasses into food.
Well, well, well. Not so weird after all. I’ve managed to find a 1963 cookbook dedicated to nutria recipes, from gumbo to casserole to chop suey. Some have even suggested nutria meat as a Thanksgiving alternative for the turkey-averse. Yeah, how's that for Thanksgiving content? Timely as hell.
Ever have—or cook—nutria meat? Let us know in the comments.
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.