People Used to Eat Pandas. Why Don’t We Anymore?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Oct. 15 2012 4:37 PM

What Does Giant Panda Taste Like?

A mini-Explainer on the flavor of our most adorable endangered species.

Jia Jia the giant panda eating.
Do pandas taste like chicken? Probably not.

Photo by Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images.

Chinese scientists have found evidence that prehistoric people ate giant pandas. The Explainer has previously described the flavors of whale, sloth, dinosaur, horse, and even human. How does giant panda meat taste?

Terrible, apparently. In 1983, a Chinese villager named Leng Zhizhong was tried for illegally killing a giant panda. He told the judge that his wife cooked the meat with turnips, but they didn’t enjoy it, so he fed some to his pigs and gave the remainder to his sister. Leng, unfortunately, didn’t explain what made the meat so unpalatable in what appears to be the only written description of panda-eating. Rural Chinese people have no tradition of eating the animal, and some ethnic groups may have considered the practice forbidden. When President Theodore Roosevelt’s sons, Kermit and Theodore IV, killed a giant panda in 1928, their local guides refused to join them in eating the meat and called in a priest to purify the hayloft where the beast had been butchered. (The Roosevelt boys left no description of the taste.) Today, the penalty for killing a panda is several years in prison.

It’s tempting to assume that giant pandas would taste like other members of the taxonomic family Ursidae, such as black and brown bears, which were a regular part of the frontier diet in 18th-century North America. Bear meat is darker and fattier than beef, although similar in flavor. The problem with the comparison, though, is that an animal’s diet greatly affects the flavor of its own flesh. Bears that dine mainly on salmon, for example, taste worse than those with a more varied diet. Since 99 percent of a giant panda’s diet is bamboo—with the occasional addition of a rodent, bird, or fish that popped out of a stream—it’s very unlikely that its flesh tastes anything like that of other bears.

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The red panda, which is not directly related to the giant panda, has also largely avoided human gastronomic interest.* There are growing reports, however, of Chinese restaurants keeping live, caged red pandas and offering their meat to guests. Descriptions of the experience are rare, suggesting that the animal may also be unpalatable.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

*Correction, Oct. 16, 2012: This article originally stated that red pandas and giant pandas are closely related.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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