BARQUISIMETO, Venezuela - Restaurant owner Agustin Iglesias says he tries to avoid eating red meat during Holy Week to respect Catholic tradition. But rather than opting for fish as other Catholics around the world do before Easter Sunday, Mr. Iglesias feasts on a local delicacy - capybara, long known as the world's largest rodent.
"It's delicious," he said, finishing off the remains of the meat on his plate. "I know it's a rat, but it tastes really good."
Though it's hard to imagine eating a boiled, oversize rat, salted capybara is considered a delicacy in Venezuela, where thousands this week are enjoying the meat of the rodent during Holy Week. Centuries ago, the Vatican ruled that these furry cousins of rats and mice native to South America's plains qualify as fish - paving the way for capybara feasts during Lent, when red meat is prohibited. The unusual animals have boxy teeth and pointy ears, but also have an unusual protruding rump and webbed feet that make them look quite different from the greasy vermin that scurry through city streets and alleyways.
Served with rice and plantains, the meat looks like beef, but most contend it has a fishy flavor. This is because capybaras spend much of their time swimming in lakes and ponds, and largely survive on aquatic grasses. Venezuelans usually eat the meat heavily salted instead of preparing it fresh, making it difficult to expand the repertoire of Venezuelan rodent dishes.
But the Venezuelan government intends to change all that. To begin with, taxonomists recently reclassified the capybara's genus to make it a cousin of the guinea pig - a step up from its current ratty image. In addition, cooks like Victor Moreno, head chef for the Center for Advanced Gastronomic Studies, are developing new recipes for capybara.
"People always think of capybara as a salted meat, so they've never explored other possibilities," Mr. Moreno said. His team has come up with capybara combos that make the meat gourmet.
A four course combo includes a prosciutto-like capybara ham drizzled with guava sauce; a capybara curry with rice; a tuna-salad-esque capybara combo on a bed of lettuce, and ravioli stuffed with ground capybara. "I like when people eat one of these dishes and then say 'This is capybara?!,' " Mr. Moreno said. However, he admitted that getting the general public to latch on to the trend will be an uphill battle. The meat is considerably more expensive than pork or beef, and without a delicate touch, its unusual flavor makes it hard to enjoy sans salt.
There are different versions of the tale of the Vatican choice that made capybara into a South American Easter treat. Most cite a request from 16th-century European missionaries in the region who were facing limited food supply and had trouble selling converts on Lent's month of abstentions. According to legend, the clergymen sent a message to Vatican authorities, describing a furry creature that spends much of its time swimming with its webbed feet, implying that it might be a fish - and hinting that permission to eat the animal could save them from possible starvation.
Centuries later, the decision has spawned a seasonal hunting of the animals in early spring to provide for the Holy Week demand. Hunters at ranches coax the animals away from rivers and run them in circles until they are exhausted, easy targets. These days, most ranchers shoot their game with rifles, though some prefer the traditional method used by the Spanish conquistadors - clubbing the animals on the head with large sticks.
To prevent a decline in the capybaras, Venezuela's Environment Ministry oversees hunting to ensure that no more than 20% of them are killed a year. In the past, excessive hunting threatened to decimate Venezuela's capybara populations. Though the animal is not considered endangered today, economic recession has led to poaching despite security measures.
Venezuelan research scientist Ramiro Royero worked with a team of experts on a project finding new uses for capybaras. He says capybara meat has 10% fewer calories and 23% less fat then beef, in addition to having more protein in every serving.
"Capabyra producers also tend to waste the skins of the animals," Mr. Royero said. "The leather can be used for belts or purses - and especially for gloves, since capybara fur is water-resistant." Mr. Royero hopes these initiatives will help create a cottage industry. But despite the gastronomic and scientific advances in capybara uses, Venezuelans continue to think of the salted beef as a specialty of the season.
"I actually eat capybara all year round," said Beltran Trejo, 55, an engineer who lives outside Barquisimeto, "but for some reason, it's best during Holy Week."