With a thud, Tío Roberto plunked down a large glass jar before me filled with hunks of meat, onion, carrot, parsley, bay leaf and garlic suspended in a cloudy bath of vinegar. He unscrewed the jar's red plastic lid and invited me to fish out a piece of meat and some vegetables.
The jar, I was told, contained homemade vizcacha en escabeche or pickled viscacha. After trying to determine the mystery meat's identity through an elaborate game of 20 Questions with my husband's family, I still couldn't form a solid mental image of this critter. Ultimately, I decided to do what any open-minded foodie would: eat first and google later. The viscacha's meat was tender, lean and white with no trace of gaminess. Whatever it was that I'd just eaten, it tasted decidedly delicious.
As it turns out, the plains viscacha (spelled vizcacha in Spanish) is a rodent and member of the chinchilla family native to South America. At home on the range here in Argentina, viscachas live together in groups of up to 50 in a system of burrows known as a vizcachera.
Viscachas are primarily nocturnal animals, beginning their period of activity in late afternoon. The group's dominant male pops out of the vizcachera first to check for predators, and if all is well, the rest of the colony follows.
The viscacha is prone to some rather curious habits, which include hoarding sticks, small bones, wire and other objects at the entrances to the vizcachera. In a nod to the animal's propensity for collecting trinkets and baubles, people who do the same are sometimes referred to as vizcachas.
For a number of reasons, Argentine farmers and cattle ranchers consider viscachas an agricultural pest. They strip the ground surrounding the vizcachera bare, leaving little to nothing for grazing animals to munch on. Viscachas also have quite a taste for vegetables and grains, causing significant damage to farmers' crops. In addition, their burrows present a hazard for horses or cattle that may accidentally step in the holes. As a result, the government strongly encourages hunting as a method of population control.
According to Daniel's family, the flavor of the animal's meat depends a lot on its diet, and given that the vizcacha is an herbivore, its meat retains a "clean" (i.e. non-gamey) flavor. Honestly, I found the taste and texture of viscacha to be quite enjoyable, and I wouldn't hesitate to sample it again in the future.
Vizcacha en escabeche [photo] is usually enjoyed at room temperature as part of a picada—a selection of meats, cheeses and other finger foods. If you're in Argentina and looking to try the dish, shops with a selection of specialty foods often carry pickled viscacha. In the country's Cuyo region, viscacha marinated in a mixture of garlic, parsley, onion, wine and spices and roasted in the oven or on the grill [photo] makes the occasional appearance.
Have you ever dined on rodent, viscacha or otherwise?