I was walking along the road that ran through Chengyang in Guangxi province once summer day last summer when I saw locals preparing and cooking a dog with a blow torch. I had never eaten dog meat before, so I asked them how it tasted.
“Like dog,” they said.
They invited me to try it, but something about seeing the body of the dog being cooked with a blow torch by the side of the road didn’t whet my appetite. I ended up joining a group of students at a riotous Dong ethnic food and wine feast instead.
Now, as in every June since 2009, Yulin, 450 km (280 mi) south of Chengyang, is playing host to Lychee and Dog Meat Festival. As in past years, Western activists are bemoaning the cruelty of eating one kind of helpless animal. A petition on Change.org now has over 2.5 million signatures. The petition makes the claims that the dogs consumed are treated inhumanely and that “many” are stolen pets or watchdogs.
The petition doesn’t appear, however, to make the explicit argument that eating dogs is itself wrong, but the commenters add that on their own:
”Dog are the best friend of the man not your meat!” – Herwig Unterfurtner
“Stop eating our best friends!” – Snezhana Hristova
“I think it’s primitive and extremely ugly killing dogs” – Viktoria Valchinova
One wonders what a devout Muslim or Hindu thinks of a foreigner who eats pork and beef.
From a rational standpoint, I had no objection to the men eating dog. Each animal should basically have the same rights as all other animals. If there is nothing wrong with eating cows, pigs, and chickens, then why should eating dogs be different from a moral standpoint? The main reason we have problems eating certain animals and no problems eating others is because we have been socialized to do so. But in a society where a large amount of people have no problem eating an animal whose consumption is taboo in another culture, then that reason would be moot.
I consider myself an adventurous traveler who loves to try new things. I had written an article in college myself arguing that there was nothing morally wrong about people choosing to eat dog. So why didn’t I eat it? I considered that maybe I was unconsciously put off by the taboo, but probably the main reason I chose not to eat it that day is that the dead carcass being prepared by the side of the road just didn’t look appetizing and hygienic.
So about a month later when I was in Zhuzhou, a city of 3 million in Hunan province, which is in south-central China, not far from Guangxi, I asked my friend if there were any restaurants there that served dog. Dog has been traditionally served in the summer months in some of the southern provinces. I had seen it advertised on restaurant signs in the countryside. My friend said there was a restaurant in a downtown entertainment district that was famous for the dish in the summer.
A bowl of brown soup with celery, orange peppers, onions, and strips of meat came to our table. I curiously took a bite. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the taste. I had to concur with the villagers in Chengyang; dog tastes like dog. The flavor was pretty good, meaty, succulent, and hearty. I finally settled that it tasted kind of like something between pork and lamb.
I haven’t sought out dog meat since then (and it’s not easy to find in big cities), but there was one night when I was staying at a hostel in Saigon, Vietnam, and the boss invited me to eat dinner with her and some of the staff. They had plates of meats and vegetables on a small table for a communal dinner, as is common in Asia. I tried everything, and I could tell what most of the dishes were. There was pork and duck and local vegetables.
There was one plate of tender meat with a bit of a gamey flavor that I couldn’t quite distinguish.
“What is this one?” I asked (in English).
“Duhk,” the boss said.
“Oh, oh, dog.”
“You think it is strange?” she asked.
“No, I’ve tried it before.”
Balut. Photo taken by Wikipedia user Ischaramoochie, Public Domain.
Some Americans might have been offended to have inadvertently eaten dog. The boss must been able to tell that I was understanding of different ways of life and interested in trying things for her to have invited me over in the first place. I had been asking about culture and traditions all week. I had chomped down a meal of balut, duck eggs with half-developed fetuses, the day before.
People all around the world eat different kinds of food. It’s one of the reasons we travel. If one wants a real reason to be outraged in Vietnam, they can visit the site of the My Lai Massacre, the Vietnam War Remnants Museum, or the Hanoi Hilton.