If you are planning on an exotic meal of bats and flying foxes, think about the deadly viruses you may be ingesting.
MOST of us cringe at the thought of eating bats and flying foxes (fruit bats). Some people with queer appetites, however, just love such exotic delicacies.
Now, experts have warned that consuming flying mammals could be a health hazard. Bats are flying mammals of the order Chiroptera and are believed to be among the Nipah disease carriers as well as a natural reservoir of deadly viruses.
“Most studies have found the Nipah or Nipah-like viruses in the various large fruit bats (flying foxes). Presumably, the virus spreads among the bats as they share their food (half-eaten fruits),” Professor Dr Tan Chong Tin tells StarTwo in an e-mail interview.
Dr Tan, currently head of University Malaya Medical Centre’s Division of Neurology, led the university’s Nipah encephalitis investigation team and gained global acknowledgement in discovering the new virus in 1999.
He reckons “cooking will probably kill the viruses and make food safe to eat.”
However, there are cases where humans risk being infected by the viruses.
“There are (some) Vietnamese who make a special alcoholic drink mixed with blood from bats. It is uncertain whether this (concoction) is able to sterilise the bats,” he says.
Whilst the heat from cooking may kill the viruses in bats and flying foxes, danger still lurks when these exotic animals are being prepared for the cooking pot.
“Many of the communities in South-East Asia eat bats and other wildlife meat. However the greater danger is for those who catch, kill, clean and prepare the bats as food. From the studies, it appears that there may not be adequate protection for the workers involved,” says a concerned Dr Tan.
With so many viruses now found to be linked to bats, he urged the public “to keep a physical distance” from these flying mammals.
He emphasises that he is not out to create an anti-bat sentiment as these creatures are important in the ecological balance as they help to pollinate and eat insects.
A recent newspaper report in 1998 quoted Dr Tan as saying that when pig farm workers collected fruits half-eaten by bats and fed them to pigs, they transferred the virus from the bats to the pigs.
That year, more than 100 people infected by the Nipah virus died and some 1,700 pigs were culled to stop the spread of the virus.
Despite the health warning associated with eating such animals, daring food lovers still look forward to their visits to food haunts selling wildlife meat, and this includes bats.
Last year, it was reported that the large flying foxes will be hunted to extinction in Peninsular Malaysia by 2015 if the current unsustainable level of hunting continues. These fruit bats are crucial for the rainforest eco-systems in this part of Asia. Many tropical plants are said to depend on bats for seed distribution.
Researchers at Wildlife Trust (a non-profit conservation organisation based in New York) claim that each year, about 22,000 flying foxes are legally hunted but many more are believed to be hunted illegally.
Bats belong to two sub-orders: Megachiroptera (megabats) and Microchiroptera (microbats/echolocating bats). Megabats feed on fruit, nectar or pollen while most microbats eat insects; others may feed on the blood of animals, small mammals, fish, frogs, fruit, pollen or nectar.
Malayan flying foxes, the world’s largest species of fruit bats, (megabats) are said to feed on nectar, blossom, pollen and fruit. They have a very developed sense of smell and sight, but do not have echolocation or “bouncing sounds” which helps the other sub-order of bats, the microbats, locate and catch prey (insects).
Bats range in size, from Kitti’s Hog-nosed Bat measuring 29mm in length and weighing 2g to the Giant Golden-Crowned Flying Fox which has a wing span of 1.5m, tipping the scale at 1.2kg.
Worldwide, there are about 1,100 bat species, which represent about 20% of all classified mammal species. Some 70% of bats are insectivores while the rest are frugivores or fruit eaters.
A few species feed from animals other than insects.
Bats may have one to three litters in a season depending on the species and the availability of food and roost sites. Generally, the female bats have one offspring at a time and nurse their young until it has grown nearly to adult size. The young bat cannot forage for food until its wings are fully developed.
A bat can live over 20 years but the bat population growth is limited by the slow birth rate.
Today, flying foxes are hunted for their meat, medicinal and aphrodisiac benefits. But, to orchard farmers, they are pests and are hunted down to control their numbers.
Licences are required to hunt the flying foxes. The Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) Department charges RM50 for game animal licences to hunt the Malayan flying fox for a three-month period. The licence limits the hunting to 50 flying foxes only each time.
“Bats are known as phin fook in Cantonese while flying foxes, fei shi,” relates an adventurous foodie who only wants to be known as Ah Meng. The 41-year-old from Subang Jaya, Selangor, always goes in search of the best eateries in town.
He has eaten both bats and flying foxes, and knows the keen difference between the two.
“Bats are tasty deep-fried or roasted. The meat tastes like mutton with the texture of chicken,” he says, adding that flying foxes are usually served up as a curried dish or braised with ginger.
Asked if it was true that bats and flying foxes are considered “heaty”, he replies: “Meat is meat. There is no difference.” He does not feel heaty after such a meal.
However, whether bats are fit for consumption is debatable these days, especially with the health scare in the media.
“These days, few people eat bats. It is more common to find people enjoying flying foxes instead. If they have such cravings, these folks head to food outlets that sell game meat (perhaps illegally) in rural villages,” he adds.
Some 10 years ago, Ah Meng ate bats while in Sarawak.
“In the wet market in Kapit, bats are sold in baskets. The Ibans eat them as a delicacy, preferring to roast them over a slow fire after smothering them in a marinade of spices,” he says, having indulged in such a meal.
A blogger (headsteadi.com/2007/01/13/flying-fox-porridge/) also wrote about savouring flying fox porridge cooked with ginger and lemon grass, which is a Dayak delicacy in Sarawak. Other dishes include stewing the fruit bat in tempoyak (fermented durian), or stir-fried with lemon grass and soy sauce.
A manager in the food industry, Tom (a pseudonym), admitted that he was misled into thinking that bats were hazardous for health, but flying foxes were not, because they feed on fruits. We know now that flying foxes, too, are carriers of viruses.
He recalls eating bats a decade ago.
“It was cooked rendang style. A friend’s father in Bentong (Pahang) went bat hunting and we had a feast of the day’s catch. Bats are aplenty during the fruit season, particularly in July,” he says.
“Asthma sufferers believe that bats double-boiled in ginger is a good remedy. Those with a weak constitution and who feel cold (with clammy hands) are recommended to take bats or flying foxes as they warm the body.”
A Chinese chef who declined to be named, ate bats in Malacca six years ago. “A friend went hunting in Machap Baru, an hour’s drive from Malacca town, and cooked us a meal of bats,” he says.
This small town is said to attract local and Singaporean tourists for its restaurants, which serve exotic game.
“Bats are delicious. We had braised bats in ginger. The Chinese would regard it as heaty as the bats are considered game meat. However, if we savour it with beer which is considered cooling, then our body system would be in balance and we would not feel heaty.”
Bats taste like kampung chicken, he continues, adding that usually his buddies enjoy it while on an outing for “good fun”.
A restaurateur turned caterer could not remember whether he had bats or flying foxes some 20 years ago.
“The meat was delicious and very heaty. These bats were cooked with Chinese herbs and ginger. Braising and stir-frying were two favourite cooking styles.”
He adds: “My friends would go hunting for bats during durian season when bats are attracted to the durian flowers. The bats can weigh as much as 1kg and their wing span can stretch out to 3.5ft (107cm).”
Restaurateur Lum Tuck Loy says that bats can weigh from 300g to 2kg. “Bats and flying foxes are usually sold by food operators in the outskirts of towns. Big restaurants do not serve them,” says Lum.
“Bats and flying foxes are regarded as poh hei (good for stamina) and poh sun (energy booster). However, when they are slaughtered, they look like little babies.”
“Bats contribute to the ecological balance by helping to disperse seeds and pollinate flowers. Please do not eat them,” implores June Ka Lim, a holistic nutritionist.
“Bats are natural reservoirs of many types of pathogens because of their high mobility. Some indigenous people in Sabah and Sarawak eat bats. There is a risk of infection as cooking may not kill all the virus carried by bats,” she says.
“Some Chinese believe that eating bats help cure coughs, and adding bat faecal droppings to other herbs in soup help blood circulation and improve eyesight. But, there are many other better choices of food that could solve these problems,” Lim says.