Jeff Springer, Quinn Costello, and I are making a documentary, Rodents of Unusual Size, about the legions of 20 pound swamp rats that are eating away the fragile coastal wetlands of Louisiana. These giant rodents, known as nutria, were imported from Argentina in the 1930’s for their fur by the guy who invented Tabasco sauce, among many others. But after a series of unfortunate events the nutria escaped into the wild and the nutria population exploded.
Since nutria are vegetarians at heart they have proceeded to feast on the roots of wetland plants and have transformed much of the Bayou into high salinity wastelands. These "dead zones" no longer provide a functional buffer against hurricanes and also threaten the biodiversity that supports migratory bird and plant life.
To do battle with this invasive species the Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries has encouraged folks to do their part by eating these free-range rodents. Let’s say that, even with famed Louisiana chefs like Paul Prudhomme taking a stab at swamp rat sausages, tamales, jerky and other creations, people have been reluctant to embrace nutria for human consumption.
But while on location filming we kept hearing stories about the nutria’s delicious, low fat, high protein meat and coastal residents who celebrated the nutria as tasting “better than steak.” So we thought, gators like to snack on nutria, why not us?
After-all we are offering artisanally prepared nutria meat as one of the rewards as part of our Kickstarter fundraising campaign and we couldn’t unleash it onto the world without giving it a try.
The anticipation was huge. Would it be “better than steak” as one of our interviewees swore it would? Would it taste like a swamp rabbit? Would it even be edible?
You can check out our thoughts and impressions in our video review.
Some hearty hunters bagged 8 nutrias for us and we had them processed by a butcher who was legendary for his skills at making nutria not only palatable, but delectable.
Three ways to prepare the meat did battle in our scientifically rigorous taste test: Snack Stix, sausage on a bun (with a touch of Tabasco sauce) and nutria jambalaya.
Nutria Snack Stix - This curious item runs about 6” to 7” in length. They are basically like a thicker Slim Jim minus the snap. Overall, what you're going to notice on the first bite is a strong smoky natural meat flavor, but one that is well countered by the Cajun seasonings and a moderate amount of heat that builds up with each chew.
They have a fresh pepperoni like kick with an oily surface feel. The stix have some flexibility to them and don’t easily crack open with any amount of bending. Chewing was easy and there isn’t a high degree of saltiness.
We decided that the mixture of the flavors helped to make the nutria meat palatable but the addition of the spices seemed to be hiding the actual flavor of the meat. Our findings were inconclusive.
Nutria Cajun Sausage - These chunky links tasted wild and exotic. The slight garlic and cayenne flavors percolated on the tongue, but were quickly overwhelmed by a taste we have to describe as the flavor of the “swamp”. One of us thought it tasted like a morgue, while another tasted a hint of walnuts. You’re definitely in unique flavor country here as the true taste of the nutria meat really came out, for a perplexing culinary experience.
This item provides a nice real meat flavor for a medium grind sausage that can work well on the grill if its tended carefully, but given the meat’s natural leaness you have to watch that it doesn’t get too dry. If we were to try it again we’d choose to boil it in water or an Abita beer, bratwurst style.
Nutria Jambalaya - Like a film crew, the nutria meat seems to work best in collaboration. It really shined in this dish as it easily took on all of the spices & flavors associated with Louisiana cooking. The long simmer and slow cooking time resulted in a soft, moist meat and a jambalaya with a light tanginess and a smoky background in each bite.
We’re not convinced eating nutria meat will ever go mainstream, as heck look at those big orange teeth and long rat like tail. Nonetheless, nutria can be quite tasty. It truly is the other OTHER white meat.