I ate rat. And bat. And hog … and I even ate a dog
DAVID PENBERTHY, "The Australian"

It was like Heston Blumenthal had gone on a killing spree at his local pet store and then enlisted Dr Seuss to write the menu.

We ate some rats. We ate some bats. We ate some native hog.

We even ate roasted dog.

This time 25 years ago, I was about to sit down for what was truly a meal to remember. And not in a good way.

In 1995, I spent three months in Jakarta on placement at the newspaper Media Indonesia, which had a large number of senior journalists who hailed from northern Sulawesi.

They were terrific people and extremely generous, and they kindly arranged for me to visit the city of Manado, famous for its scuba diving, and the neighbouring towns of Gorontalo and Tomohon. It’s a truly exquisite part of the world where the air is scented with clove and vanilla and the ocean views are breathtaking.

(Picture of ) Tomohon exotic wildlife market in Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Despite the region’s relative affluence and the ready availability of superb seafood (which they cook especially well), the Manadonese and their neighbours have a raging appetite for what could be described by way of understatement as extreme dining.

I was taken to a restaurant that was hailed as the finest purveyor of traditional Manadonese cuisine in the region. This was obvious on arrival, because you could hear barking coming from the kitchen.

The Indonesians call it rintek wuuk, which translates roughly from Bahasa as: “Get a dog up ya.”

The poor dogs all appeared to be local mutts. It was hard to identify their breed, even harder because they had all been roasted on spits and piled high on a bench in takeaway terrier form, for the hungry diner on the go.

Our party was settling in for the full a la carte experience. Luckily, there was a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red on the table so I poured myself a pint to steel myself for what lay ahead.

Weirdly, the first dish that we were offered was called bubur manado, a bacon-based broth containing diced carrot, onion, celery and white beans. Somehow the people of Manado had made a near-perfect minestrone, and I ate two bowls hoping my early enthusiasm could excuse me from the culinary horror of the mains.

(Picture of) Bat for sale at the Tomohon exotic wildlife market in Sulawesi, Indonesia.

It was not to be. Despite being full on soup, and by now quite drunk, the main course was Saint Saens’ Carnival of the Animals. My hosts were insistent that I try a bit of everything — and, not wanting to be rude, I did.

First up were the dogs, and a side plate of grilled native rats that had a stick of lemongrass shoved up their bum, to be enjoyed in handy popsicle form. The dog was less repulsive than you might imagine. It had been cooked for so long that it tasted nondescript. Indeed, you wouldn’t have known it was a dog if you hadn’t heard the chef shouting “Sit!” in the kitchen.

The rats were a more confrontational proposition, especially as they looked exactly like rats, their heads still attached, with their little teeth sticking out. More scotch please, garcon.

The babirusa was an unexpected delight. Babirusas are large nat*ive swamp hogs that are closely related to pigs, and the meat had been cooked well over coals, and tasted a bit like Italian porchetta.

The bat, however, was another story. Chef had truly saved the worst until last. It hadn’t been grilled, as per the photo on the front page of Wednesday’s The Australian, but braised in a sickly fruit-based stew. When the waiter fished it out of the pot to plate up, the webbing on the bat’s wings was sort of wobbling about under an apricot-tasting slurry. I had a *nibble on some of the skin and then declared myself beaten.

I don’t want to sound judgmental or ungrateful. In defence of the Indonesians, I’d point out that mad cow disease may have actually started by Western agribusinesses feeding meat-and-bone meal to cattle. Equally, there’s a reason the Australian meat pie is known as a mystery bag. And the entire world thinks it’s bizarre and brutal that we eat kangaroos.

But in light of the global pandemic, maybe it’s time to take the bat off the menu. Believe me, you’re not missing a thing. And if ever you’re in Manado, try the minestrone.