What Does Dog Taste Like?

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Backpacking around the world does wonders to rid a person of their culinary inhibitions. Before my girlfriend and I set off on our global sojourn I had no idea of the taste of bullfrog, silk worms, horse, guanaco, llama, alligator, deep fried ants, chicken feet, goose cartilage, guinea pig, congealed duck blood, snake and all manner of forgettable crustaceans…

Eating snake

But look at me now. I’m a veritable connoisseur of freaky foods. No animal is safe from my taste buds. Each morning I wake up wondering which of God’s creatures should next be slain for my gustatory gratification.

When it comes to man’s best friend however, most people draw the line in gastronomic experimentalism – “How could anyone possibly want to eat a dog?!? Dogs are pets, not food!! They’re so cute and fluffy and actually quite intelligent, don’t you know…?”

This sentiment extends to the overwhelming bulk of epicurean adventurers we meet in the backpacking community too. ‘Dog’ is usually used as a sort of shorthand for describing food quality in restaurants without English menus – “Yeah, it was great. I mean, they definitely wouldn’t just serve you up dog or something,” one backpacker said to me only yesterday when reflecting on the lunch he’d eaten in a canteen that serves only braised intestines…

Braised intestines

Perhaps it was travel fatigue… perhaps it was the underwhelming trip to the border with North Korea… perhaps it was the blustery weekend we spent on Jeju Island… perhaps it was the endless traipsing around markets in Busan… perhaps it was the one too many temples we visited in Seoul… perhaps it was the all encompassing sense that none of our South Korean experiences up to that point had felt particularly ‘special’…

South Korean confusion

Something pushed my girlfriend and I beyond the limits of Western dining etiquette…

In Search Of Dog Meat…

I’d had this nagging sensation since arriving in South Korea that if we didn’t eat dog now then we might never…

Seoul skyline

If you believe what you read in the newspapers (as a former professional journalist, I recommend you don’t) then the age old practise of slaughtering dogs for meat is on the wane in South Korea. The tradition is mainly still popular amongst the elderly who make a habit of downing steaming bowls of ‘Bosintang’ (dog stew) on the three hottest days of every year, believing that it cools the body from the inside out.

Ye olde Koreans

It was the middle of November and I was wearing two sweaters and three pairs of socks, but I knew being in South Korea at completely the wrong time of year would not be the biggest hurdle to overcome in finding myself a bowl of bosintang. First, I had to get it past the girlfriend…

The girlfriend

I thought for long periods about how best to broach the subject. There were awkward silences and half started sentences that quickly fumbled in to bland commentary on the weather. I realised this is probably what pant sniffers and cheese-grater fetishists go through when they finally confess to a loved one that they’ve been having kinky thoughts. And then one day, I just blurted it out…

“Darling, shall we eat a dog?” I asked using the same vocal timbre most people reserve for offering a custard cream to dunk in tea.

”Of course,” she smiled. And that was that.

We kept our eyes peeled for dog eateries from that moment on. They should be obvious, I thought, because most restaurants in South Korea tend not to have endless Western style multi-page menus –instead they display photographs in the windows to advertise the two or three dishes on offer. Sometimes they also have handy cartoon character logos of the animals contained within each meal.

Line-squiggle-squiggle-circle

But the windows of the dog restaurants in Seoul seemed not quite so forthcoming. We turned to the guy behind the reception desk at our hostel, a man with a very prominent lisp in his early twenties whose name I never caught:

“Ah, yeth, dog!” he said. “Well, you won’t be able to find it in Theoul, there are too many foreignerth here and they complain. You’ll have to go to thuburbth to find it. Hang on, let me look on the internet… oh wait, there’th three restauranth jutht around the corner!! Although they’re all Chinethe rethtauranth… don’t go to thothe oneth… Chinethe dog ith very bad…”

Foreigner menu

Having finally found someone with insider knowledge on the South Korean dog meat scene, I was keen to probe further. I leant over the counter and whispered, “Is it legal?”

“Well, it’th not illegal,” he smirked. “It’th just that dogth aren’t counted ath livethtock tho they’re not thubject to the thame regulationth ath cowth and theep and pigth. The government tried to bring dogth under the livethtock regulationth many yearth ago but the animal righth lobby went crathy, tho the government jutht thort of forgot about the whole thing…”

“I guess the animal rights lobby aren’t so in to dog meat these days?” I snorted Alan Partridgely. “I mean, I’ve even seen people walking pet dogs since arriving South Korea!”

Many dogs being walked

“Well…” our receptionist pondered. “There ith a very thmall but very loud minority of animal righth people who hate it, but in reality most people in Thouth Korea don’t object to it morally. I gueth it’s not very fathionable now though… it’th mainly eaten by old people. People have pet dogth too, but they’re a different breed of dog to the oneth we eat.”

“Do you like dog?” I asked.

His eyes glossed over, as if daydreaming about dog dinners of days past – “I haven’t eaten it thinth I wath in the army… but yeth, it’th very good. It tasteth like lamb! Motht people eat it in a kind of thtew but I prefer it like bulgogi… barbecued over a fire. They feed tholdierth dog meat in the army becauthe they thay it giveth you power.”

The reception guy flexed his bicep and then turned his attention back to the computer screen. “OK, here’th a good one. It’th two thubway thtopth away.” He marked the location on our map and wrote in Korean the words for dog meat, bosintang and dog bulgogi.

“Have a nithe meal!” he chuckled.

Seoul backstreets

Two subway stops later we were walking around a maze of identical backstreets. We showed our annotated map to an umbrella salesman who reacted as if we’d just asked him to solve a particularly tricky sudoku. Then we tried to match the Korean text on the map to the signs above the restaurants, which to our Western eyes roughly translated as ‘line-squiggle-squiggle-circle-line-line-circle-squiggle…’

A well dressed businessman intervened. He squinted at the map.

“Dog?!?” he chirruped, perhaps because he thought someone had written ‘bosintang’ on there for a laugh.

“Yes!!!” we squeaked with equal enthusiasm. The businessman’s face dropped.

“Oh… ok, I’ll show you,” he said, and led us down half a dozen more warreny back alleyways and across a car park. “This isn’t the restaurant written on your map,” he said, “but it does sell dog. Is that ok?”

This place sells dog meat

“Sure, why not?” we answered, having already opened the front door…

Empty dog restaurant

The restaurant was completely deserted, save for one mid-fifties woman who stared back at us in a way that suggested she thought we might’ve taken a wrong turn.

“Line-squiggle-squiggle-circle-line-line-circle-squiggle-line-bosintang,” the businessman said to the bemused woman.

Dog meat menu

“Ah!” she exhaled, and sat us down at a table annoyingly close to a draughty doorway. We added a couple of beers to our order and waited.

Tasting Notes…

The bowls were plonked on our table, still bubbling. Fiery hot dog juice spat back at us…

A bowl of bosintang

I poured some of the liquid over my rice. The flavour was gingery, oniony, fresh and zesty – like a less coconutty Thai red curry with a piquant aftertaste. And then I bit in to a chunk of dog…

Eating dog meat

It was like a light but fatty lamb boiled to within an inch of its life – perhaps not as soporific as sheep meat, but with a definite gamey punch. The threads of flesh flaked between my molars under the slightest of pressure.

Accompanying the meal were side plates of particularly ripe kimchi – the ubiquitous dish of fermented spicy cabbage that Koreans just can’t seem to get enough of – another of raw onions and chillies, pickled garlic cloves and a bowl of dipping spice…

Bosintang sides

Behind us, the formerly bemused mid-fifties woman sat on the floor with a man of equal age, sorting spring onions, presumably for future bowls of bosintang…

Sorting spring onions

If I were to pull out a few negatives from my bowl of bosintang, I’d say I’d have preferred a little more bite from the dog meat itself. It was almost too tender.

Great emphasis is put on meat tenderness in Western cuisine, but there is a definite point at which a lack of resistance between the teeth feels disconcerting. It felt like the dog meat in my bosintang had crossed the ideal tenderness line at some point in the previous week and just kept on walking for another couple of hundred miles…

Chewing dog

Also, at the end of the meal I had to spend a good ten minutes with a tooth pick scraping chunks of dog fat from between my gnashers. It was a little too gristly and sinewy for my Western palate, although completely within expectations considering everything else we’d eaten in similarly priced restaurants in Korea. Perhaps this is a facet of dog meat itself, or a reflection on the quality of meat used in this particular dish…? The only way for us to find that out would be to try bosintang at a whole bunch of other eateries.

I asked my girlfriend to provide a review of bosintang for the purposes of this blog. Here’s what she had to say: “Meh… it’s a bit lamby, but not as nice as lamb. Nothing’s as nice as lamb. Was it a bit spicy? Oh yeah, the dipping sauce was good wasn’t it?”

Girlfriend eats dog

Interestingly, a study conducted in 2006 found that dog meat is the fourth most commonly consumed meat in South Korea, after beef, chicken and pork. I’d say that’s a little generous based on our bosintang experience… Is dog tastier than duck? Lamb? Boar? Venison? Pheasant? Partridge? Guinea fowl? Quail? Squab…? Jesus H Christ, no!! It’s probably on a par with llama or horse.

But dog certainly makes for a more pleasant meal than bullfrog, snake, ants, guinea pig and silk worms. It will be a cold day in hell before I put silk worms in my mouth again, that’s for sure …

Eating silk worms

Ethics…

I’d rather not get bogged down by the ethics of eating dog meat in this blog, but having read up on the dog meat scene I realise to many people that’s like praising toothbrush moustaches whilst neglecting to mention Hitler…

Dog pack

I thoroughly recommend you check out this link to read an excellent, clever, rational, witty and well considered post from blogger ‘Ask A Korean’ about the ethics of eating dog.

Also worth reading is this extraordinary 4,000 word tirade by pressure group Korea Animal Rights Advocates, written in response to Ask A Korean’s blog, chock full of shock hyperbole lifted straight out of a Fox News style guide.

It really does seem impossible to even mention dog consumption without Godwin’s Law being enacted somewhere along the line. Maybe I was little naive in expecting the people on both sides of the argument to have the capacity to debate without resorting to personal attacks and character assassination. The cuteness and fluffiness of canines seems to be the main stumbling block to rational discussion.

Shagging dogs

With that in mind, it is not unreasonable for me to assume that as a result of this blog I too might be trolled, hacked and denounced as worse than a paedophile, climate change denier/activist, Oppenheimer etc.

But before that happens, I’d like to make it absolutely crystal clear on where I stand/sit on the ethics of eating dog. I’ve trawled the internet for the most common for and against arguments and compiled my thoughts…

*Deep breath*

Ready? Here we go…

Dogs are not an endangered species. They do feel pain and have ‘feelings’, but then so do cows, pigs, sheep and chickens. If you genuinely believe that there is a moral distinction between eating dog and eating cows, pigs, sheep or chickens then you are a fucking idiot. Animals eat animals, this is fact since time immemorial.

Clothed dog

The problem with the otherwise watertight logic outlined in the above paragraph is that human beings are animals too. If animals are basically just living, breathing, walking sacks of meat then presumably anyone who objects to cannibalism is a fucking idiot also.

Personally, I wouldn’t eat a human because we are at the same level of the food chain. Also, to massively paraphrase the 17th century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, I wouldn’t eat another human because I don’t want other humans to eat me. A society that advocates cannibalism is not the kind of society I want to live in.

The pain and suffering that presumably goes hand in hand with cannibalism is also a bit of a turn off for me too – much like the pain and suffering that dogs undergo (including strangulation, electrocution, burning and beating) when they are mistreated by a small proportion (i.e. not the overwhelming majority) of South Korean dog meat farmers. Add on to this the fact that some dog farmers have been accused of keeping and slaughtering their herds in unsanitary conditions – it’s easy to see why bowls of bosintang are an unpalatable prospect for many.

Pampered poodle

Given that decades of trying to vilify the dog farming trade has made little progress in terms of stamping out bad practice, perhaps then the answer to this moral minefield is to minimise the pain and suffering caused to farmed dogs where possible. Legislate so that the dog meat trade is brought in to line with South Korean livestock regulations.

If dog farmers persist in breaking the rules then increase the likelihood of prosecution and the severity of the punishment – heavier fines, jail time, tarring and feathering, forcing farmers to parade through the centre of town with their castrated genitals hanging from a necklace, and so on…

Matching dogs

A solid counter-arguer might note that a dog eater apologist who follows the ‘legislate it’ rationale would still have no moral qualms about eating human meat so long as it was legal, corn fed and raised free range on a dewy pasture…

I’m just not that in to the whole idea of eating a person to be completely honest. Even if the cannibalism was consensual – like that German guy who pan fried his schlong and served it up to some bloke he met on the internet – I can’t imagine humans would be particularly tasty. All the drugs, antibiotics and hormones we pump in to our bodies on a daily basis are unlikely to equate to haute cuisine.

In the unlikely event that I am ever offered organic, ethically reared human meat however, I’ll post a follow up blog to let you all know whether or not I chose to eat it.

Dog

Moving swiftly on, if you believe that eating dogs is bad because meat consumption demands more of our planet’s limited natural resources than purely eating vegetables does, then… well… you have a good point. I can’t really argue against that one, other than to say that there is more than enough land and resources to feed everyone on Earth. Surely it’s easier to prevent famine by helping to distribute our natural resources evenly than it is to try and change a population’s dietary habits…?

Human beings eat meat because they want to, not because they need to. Animals taste great and that’s why I eat them. In South Korea I learned that dogs taste great too.


Forlorn dog

When newspapers report on the closure of a high profile South Korean dog meat restaurant they make out like it’s some sort of victory for common sense and civility. Why? I can’t help feeling that a world where people don’t castigate each other for the things they choose to eat would be a happier place.

If such a time comes that starvation poses a genuine threat to the continuing existence of the human race then I might perhaps consider axing meat from my diet (emphasis on ‘might’ and ‘perhaps’) – but I’ll be cutting out silk worms, guinea pig and bullfrog long before I take dog off my menu.

Sad dog

I will be sad if eating dog dies out in South Korea. Internationally the country is distinguished for being a place to eat dog, for Gangnam Style and for being less politically interesting than its northerly neighbour. That’s it. Take away the dog and all that’s left is a stupid dance and democracy…

Intrepid dog eater

I don’t know why eating dog is so controversial in the Western world. The night after I ate it I went to bed with a belly full of mutt and slept like a baby. I ate a dog, I liked it and I’d do it again.

Besides, I’ve always been a cat person at heart. My girlfriend isn’t though – she once ran over a kitten whilst driving through Alabama at 2am, but that’s another story…

Cat amongst pigeons

noijnonijmpomokmpomop.