By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
Over forty years ago, we read about and decided to visit a family-run, highly-rated Quintana Roo restaurant in the jungle off the road from Cancun to Playa Carmen. We pulled off the road at the designated kilometer post into an area cleared for parking, and wandered down a narrow path to find a charming cottage in a clearing on the bank of a lagoon. Near the cottage was a rabbit hutch with sweet roly-poly bunnies – we thought them to be pets of the family’s children.
When we were presented with the menu and saw the offering of conejo, we were sure it must be a misspelling of cangrejo (crab), but suddenly realized that the dish was indeed conejo (rabbit), and the sweet little bunnies were not pets. Although this was the first time we saw rabbit on a menu in Mexico, it should not have come as a surprise. In France, lapin (rabbit) is a relatively common feature on menus, along with frogs’ legs and snails. And in China, we visited live animal meat markets where cages of rabbits were placed near chickens, ducks, puppies and monkeys – yes, monkeys.
So after our initial encounter, we were prepared to find rabbit on more menus in Mexico. This turned out to be a misconception. Not that we were disappointed. One of us sticks pretty closely to Jewish laws spelled out in the Hebrew Scriptures (aka Old Testament) that forbid certain animals to be eaten including pig, camel … and rabbit. There are many traditional delicious Mexican dishes made with meat from permitted animals, but the experience did raise our curiosity about the place of rabbit in Mexican cuisine.
Although a vegetarian diet has for millennia been the main form of food consumed in Mexico, rabbit, as archeologists have found, was considered a delicacy in preHispanic cuisine. In excavations around present-day Mexico City, artifacts and animal bones from a butcher shop indicated that the business specialized in selling rabbit meat. As historians have made clear, there was no need to supplement the daily diet with rabbit since the food consumed by the indigenous residents was nutritionally complete – so the supposition would be that rabbit was eaten as a special delicacy.
The same is true in Mexico today. As compared to other Latin American countries, Mexico ranks highest in percent of the population that sticks to a vegetarian diet. Nonetheless meat, especially beef, chicken or pork, is the preferred meal of the vast majority of Mexicans. Not rabbit. According to a 2022 paper in Meat Science, “The annual per capita consumption of meat in Mexico is 72.8 kg, of which 34.9 kg correspond to chicken, 20.3 kg to pork, 14.8 kg to beef, 1.3 kg to turkey, 0.8 g to sheep and goat, 0.6 g to horse, and [a minuscule] 0.1 g to rabbit.”
Part of the reason for rabbit being an uncommonly eaten source of protein may be the lack of availability. Unlike beef cattle, chickens, turkeys, pigs, goats, sheep or other sources of more commonly used meat, rabbits are not raised on large corporate farms or ranches that produce thousands of animals for food. Rabbit farms are most numerous in the central states in Mexico; but a study of the characteristics of cuniculture (rabbit-raising) in that area showed that the vast majority (87%) are either small-scale or medium-scale family farms. There are other rabbit farmers scattered around the country, especially in areas where there is a substantial foreign rabbit-eating populace, such as the Happy Rabbit Farm in Rancho Loco Chapala in the state of Jalisco. These small farms tend to produce a limited number of rabbits, sold directly for consumption; the availability of rabbit meat in butcher shops or food stores is limited.
Another barrier to a thriving market for rabbit meat may be the taste. Most people who have tried eating rabbit compare the taste to chicken – particularly chicken thighs – but comment on the gamey flavor. This may be why rabbit dishes are usually prepared with assertive spices. There are four primary ways of cooking rabbit meat in Mexico: adobo (marinated in spices including chilis), al ajillo (cooked with garlic), estofado (stewed), and fried in the same manner that chicken is fried. These dishes may be easily sampled in the small restaurants that line the highway that leads from Mexico City to Toluca. Within Mexico City in the Coyoacan area, the restaurant El Morral, specializing in “Mexican Heritage Food,” also served rabbit before the covid pandemic, but their reduced menu may no longer feature conejo.
In the interior of state of Oaxaca, a dish prepared with corn and rabbit in a mole sauce, segueza, is the preferred preparation. It is true that rabbit meat, as chicken, is nutritionally sound; low in fat and cholesterol and high in protein. Thus, the question remains: If rabbit tastes like chicken, and is prepared like chicken, why not simply use easily attainable and less expensive chicken?
But perhaps the most important factor that prevents people from hankering for rabbit stew and other dishes is the adoration developed in childhood for those cute roly-poly soft-fur bunnies that one can cuddle and stroke, along with the rabbits that are featured in children’s books. Just as children north of the border love to hear the Beatrice Potter stories of Peter Rabbit, children in Mexico hear tales of Pedrito, El Conejo Travieso (Little Pedro, the Naughty Rabbit – actually a translation of Beatrix Potter’s 1902 classic Peter Rabbit). More recently, Duncan Tonatiuh, a Mexican-American author of children’s books, has bolstered admiration of our furry friends with a new Mexican character, Pancho Rabbit.
So … although rabbits were served as a delicacy by ancient Aztecs, and a small number of Mexicans still find rabbit meat to their liking, we remain in the camp of most Mexicans who would rather pet them than eat them.