In aspiring to the quest of a free and inquiring mind I often get exposed to the unexpected and sometimes exotic. Such was my brush with Tepe. I have a few Tepes on my jungle ranch and, along with my jaguar and boa, felt it important to get to know my critters, responsible caretaker that I am and all that touchy feely soft side stuff. The agrarian reform law and my fellow ejido members have legally put me and mi senora in charge of what is allowed and not allowed on our jungle ranch. Including an ever expanding Tepe colony. But unlike the jaguar I had no inherent fear of the Tepe. That is until I saw how big it gets.
I won't actually give you the "official" recipe for Tepe here; for that you will probably have to find a Maya like my friend Poot though as you will see it doesn't require special sauces, seasonings or fancy cookware. After all it is a rat...and it's all in how it's cooked: underground, like a rat.
My authority is Poot, a jungle man who goes out everyday into the jungle. I really enjoy going into the jungle with Poot as there is a whole jungle world that is invisible to most of us climate controlled urbanites. Poot has taught me to respect, not fear, the jungle. The only animal the Maya men truly fear is the jaguar...and that is why they will often carry a shotgun when going deep into the jungle. They certainly don't fear Tepe.
Odds are you won't find a real jungle man in Cancun or Playa del Carmen because catching and cooking Tepe is a real skill and art that is quickly lost in the land of street tacos, supermercados and the Oxxo convenience stores of Chetumal or Tulum. And no simple mousetrap will do for this monster. He could eat a conventional trap. So the only ones that hunt Tepe are the Maya. And to find real jungle people one has to actually go to the jungle...just like going after the Tepe. Duh.
Poot doesn't speak English nor I Maya but we both speak Spanish. When I first introduced myself to Poot he said, "Deal -- that sure is a funny name". I replied, " Poot -- that sure is a funny name". We both laughed and became good friends. On my first trip to the ranch he asked me if I had ever eaten Tepe. I said no as I am from Veracruz and as far as I know we don't have Tepe there. We have rats but not that big...At least I've never seen one and believe me if I had seen one I would have remembered it. Tepe is not the sort of thing one forgets...
Poot promised that before I caught my flight from Cancun back to San Jose I would eat Tepe. I didn't pay it much attention but on the afternoon two days before our departure he shouted outside our palapa that he had trapped one and to come on over.
From the first day we moved to our Maya jungle village palapa our neighbors have brought us food. (Occasionally our neighbors in the Bay Area bring us food but none has ever brought rat.) And since the wife is an excellent cook and our native Veracruz cuisine is world famous, she returns the favor. I like that. There is something nice about being social and there is something very social about food. And neighbors sharing Tepe with neighbors.
An interesting thing about the Maya, or at least in our little village, is they only kill animals in self defense or to eat. My guess this has probably been passed down from generation to generation for eons and that's why my neighbors think that way. Makes sense. I know Poot pretty well and know the highlight of his day is when he heads out into the jungle...it's his life. In the jungle he and the jaguar are kings. In Cancun or Playa the jaguar is stuffed on the wall and Poot is a day laborer. Poot said he would never leave the jungle. I bet the jaguar says the same thing. I have to leave because I can't raise or hunt enough food to support us. Yet. Poot wants to teach me but I don't think I could bring myself to stick my hand down into Tepe's hole...
The jungle is absolutely brutal and unrelenting hence the expression 'it's a jungle out there.' That's why the Maya thrive in the jungle and soft first worlders like me don't. We can't. Well, usually not. Since the Maya are the poorest indigenous people in Mexico, they hunt to eat. I see them sometimes out on our ranch but I would never say anything if someone is hunting to eat. And in watching them I can tell you that hunting animals in the jungle is no fiesta. And I never have heard them brag about killing animals -- even when drinking with my Maya pals in the cantinas where they will brag on just about anything else.
Those who feel the Maya children should go hungry and spare the critters are fools. Sorry. I love critters too and I will not hunt them but I will not judge a man who is feeding his family. Consider the alternative which happens all too frequently, especially in the remote areas of Quintana Roo and Chiapas and points south.
Obviously I'm not a sport hunter and not really even a hunter. Somehow I never really got a thrill out of killing animals and I killed a fair number back when we lived on the ranch in Veracruz. We raised oranges and I shot hundreds of small woodpeckers that would eat the oranges. The wife would pluck the birds and fry them up...three or four making a very tasty meal. I once shot a seven foot snake. I have killed a number of large chicken hawks. Never did kill any human chicken thieves or orange bandidos though. And never saw a Tepe. Nothing even close.
So for my money, the Tepe is one giant rat. Technically it's not a rat as we urban dwellers know it...but it looks like a rat and has feet and teeth like a rat. It's like a rat except it can get up to 10 kilos or 25 pounds. They are honkers. They live near marshes or swamps giving totally new meaning to the words swamp rat.
Poot makes a stone and stick trap at their den entrance and traps them. Zero cost. He'll even pull them out with his hands, something a non-jungle man like me would never consider. He says he is always very careful as they can easily bite off a thumb. I'm still not interested. He kills the Tepe with his machete. That is one big rat. I will never have to remind myself to not stick my hand down in a Tepe hole. My fingers are fine the way they are...
He skinned the critter, cut it up, laid it on banana leaf stalks over very hot coals, placed a metal card table top over the fire and covered it all in dirt. No seasonings whatsoever. In a little over an hour we were eating Tepe, a cross between tender chicken and pork. With tortillas and habanero salsa... yummy! Poot prefers Tepe to other jungle animals. He says the meat is tastier and more tender than weasel or wild pig.
Once or twice a month he gets the urge for Tepe and he sets his traps. It might take him a day or two but sooner or later gets his Tepe. When he has money he eats chicken; when he has no money he eats Tepe. He never goes hungry though there are times when he only eats beans, tortillas and habanero peppers: the longevity diet. And a bit of Tepe. Maybe that's why Mayan's hair doesn't turn gray...or fall out like mine.
If you ever get the chance to see or eat Tepe, take a look at the teeth on that guy and tell me he's not one big rat. I was so impressed I put a whole Tepe photo album on my blog...who knows, maybe we'll start a Tepe farm. Then again probably not.