A few years ago I visited Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, south China, with a Chinese friend. One of the things that struck me was how different everything was. Until then I’d been living in the north, in Beijing and Tianjin, and this was my first trip south. It was like walking out of a desert into a jungle. The climate was hot and sticky, and there was wildlife and vegetation everywhere. The people spoke a different language. Pu tong hua (Mandarin) is standardized Chinese, supposedly spoken by everyone in the country, but Guangzhou is one of the places where they speak Cantonese. The food was different. The people even looked different. In north China people are taller, and thick-set. Down south the locals are smaller, lighter and, it has to be said,better looking.
One afternoon we visited ‘animal place.’ I thought we were going to the zoo. The place turned out to be a massive warehouse-type place, full of animals in cages. There were cats, dogs, birds, lizards, and lots of things I couldn’t identify. One thing in particular stuck in my mind. It reminded me of a black and white Kuala Bear, with huge wide eyes. So cute! I asked my friend what this thing was.
“It’s not a cat.”
“I don’t think it’s a cat. Do you know what kind of animal it is?”
“What kind of cat?”
“Dragon cat. Special cat.”
I could see the conversation was going nowhere. If my friend knew what kind of animal it was, she didn’t know how to translate it into English.
They say in Guangzhou, that if it walks, flies or swims, the locals will eat it. I wanted to know if this thing was being sold as a pet, or as food. My friend didn’t know. She just shrugged and asked me why I cared. I left Guangzhou still wondering about this weird animal, and ever since I’ve hoped to be able to one day solve the mystery of the “Dragon Cat, Special Cat.”
That day finally came recently when I was browsing the news online and stumbled across a story about indigenous wildlife in southern China.
Meet the Asian Palm Civet.
Aka, the ‘Toddy Cat.’
So my friend wasn’t completely wrong. It certainly is some distant member of the cat family. Here’s where the story gets interesting…
The Toddy Cat is often killed for its meat, though the ones I saw didn’t seem to have much meat on them. Oil extracted from the meat and preserved is also sometimes used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It’s good for skin conditions, apparently. Most bizarrely of all, though, is the animal’s purpose in the manufacture of Kopi Luwak, the most expensive coffee in the world. It’s so expensive because the coffee beans they use have passed through the Toddy Cat’s digestive tract. In other words, they feed the Toddy Cat coffee beans, wait for it to shit them out, then gather them up and roast them. Bizarre. The worst thing is that the farmers don’t treat the poor Toddy Cats very well. They are kept in cages and force fed coffee beans. They must be thinking, “No! Please, no more coffee, dude! Toddy wanna sleep, yo.”
No wonder they have those huge, freakish eyes.
Still, my curiosity is suitably piqued, and come payday I have vowed to invest in a modest packet of Kopi Luwak. Just to see what coffee that has been shat out by a Chinese bush animal tastes like. Curiosity killed the cat, they say. How ironic. I hope my curiosity doesn’t kill the cool Toddy Cat.