This handsome creature is actually the world’s largest rat. It is the capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) is native to Central and South America. An adult stands at about two feet (60 cm) tall at the shoulders and weigh as much as 65 kg. It is considered semi-aquatic as it spends most of its time in the waters of the vast marshes of its habitat. It even has webbed toes. It’s name may be derived from the Tupi “kaapĩ ûara” which quite appropriately means grass-eater. Oh, and it is a fish!
This is currently the season of Lent which today refers to a period of forty days before Good Friday and the Easter weekend. For the Roman Catholic church, Lent is a period in which followers are encouraged to give up some luxury as a sacrifice to God in a symbolic acknowledgement that God was willing to sacrifice His Son, Jesus Christ for all of us. Today, adherents may commonly abstain from eating meat on Fridays. Others may give up smoking or alcohol or even chocolates.
Before 1970s Vatican II Council, the rules were stricter. In fact, followers were expected to give up the eating of meat for the full forty day Lent period. In Europe, this often meant that fish became a staple during this time as it was not considered a meat.
However, in South America and in particular certain parts of Venezuela, there was no meat of the traditional European fare like beef or pork. Instead, in the 1600s, capybara was the major source of food. As there was very little else to eat in this hostile environment, abstaining from meat during Lent became a serious issue. It is said that the local priest sent a petition to Rome describing vaguely an animal that is scaly yet hairy but spends almost all its time in the water and asking for a ruling that the capybara could be eaten during this period. Whether it was because of the vague discription or because they did not want their parishoners to starve, the pope agreed to consider the capybara as a fish.
Today, capybara remains a favorite dish in Venezuela and even more are eaten during Lent where some say it is to Lent what turkey is to Thanksgiving in USA.
So beware, if you are dining in Venezuela, and you order the surf ‘n turf, you might be getting turf all the way!