In response to the first new SARS case in months, Chinese officials are slaughtering thousands of civet cats. Considered a culinary treat in southern China, the animals are believed to carry the virus that causes SARS. What's a civet cat, what's the best way to cook one, and what do they taste like?
Though their sleek torsos and short, limber legs may seem catlike, civet cats aren't really felines. Rather, they're members of the family Viverridae—which ranges from Africa to eastern Asia—and they're closely related to the mongoose. African viverrids tend to be carnivorous, but the civets common to China prefer to dine on fruit, especially spiky, foul-smelling durians. The species on the hook for SARS is the masked palm civet, so called because it resides in trees and bears black-and-white facial markings.
The simplest way to prepare civet for the dinner table is to roast the animal whole. Because of its diet, the animal is reputed to emit a fruity fragrance once cooked, although those who've sampled the flesh more often characterize it as "gamey." A traditional Filipino recipe masks the taste by adding vinegar, salt, soy sauce, pepper, garlic, and oregano to the mix. The Chinese approach—braising the meat in soy sauce, hoisin sauce, sugar, garlic, vinegar, and ginger (among other ingredients)—also does the trick.
By far the most celebrated and expensive use of civet, however, is in the elaborate Chinese soup known as Dragon, Tiger, and Phoenix. Civet flesh is used as the "Tiger" portion of the concoction, along with rat snake or cobra ("Dragon") and ordinary chicken ("Phoenix"). Diners in Guangdong will pay exorbitant prices for the classic soup, which is reputed to help alleviate arthritis, stimulate poor blood flow, and revive decreased libido. Since the SARS outbreak, however, the Chinese government has cracked down on restaurants that serve Dragon, Tiger, and Phoenix without an appropriate license.
Civet cats are perhaps best known for the scrapings of their perineal glands, which produce a musky substance used in high-end fragrances. According to last month's Pharmaceutical Journal, this substance was also an important additive to 17th-century medicines; it was believed that a dollop of civet extract applied to a woman's belly could treat everything from anxiety to stomachaches.
The substance has also traditionally been used in "Civet absolute," an ingredient in the food additives used to add butter, caramel, and rum flavorings to sweets. It's also listed as one of the many lesser-known ingredients in cigarettes. However, given the exorbitant cost of authentic civet scrapings nowadays, Civet absolute is often formulated from civetone, a synthetic alternative.
Lastly, there's a rare type of coffee bean, known as kopi luwak in Indonesia and caphe cut chon Vietnam, that is purported to have traveled through the intestinal tract of civet cats. The animals' stomachs can't quite break down the coffee, apparently, so they excrete the beans whole. Coffee connoisseurs prize the brew for its especially robust flavor. Few people will ever taste genuine caphe cut chon, however—it's exceedingly rare, and most of what's on the market is bogus.
Explainer thanks Ruth Winter's A Consumer's Dictionary of Food Additives.