Bangkok Post, August 19, 2000
It's out of the kennel and into the frying pan for the dogs of Vietnam,
but only the upper class can afford this delicacy
If you have a special passion for dogs of any kind and cannot tolerate the thought of the four-legged "man's best friend" being consumed by humans, you may want to skip this article.
You've been warned.
In some parts of the world, the dog is treasured not only for its level of intelligence and loyalty to humans, but also for its delicious taste.
Dogs are a familiar sight in front of the "Thit Cho" restaurants along Hanoi's Tayho Street. This dog is waiting to be killed for the evening meal.
Here on Tayho Street in an old part of Hanoi, every dog, pedigree or otherwise, is fair game for its tender meat, low-fat quality and, according to local belief, its ability to boost health and increase longevity. There is perhaps nowhere else like Tayho Street in the Dinh Tien Hoang area where a huge crowd turns up, especially on the last day of the month, to savour dog meat delicacies. Called Thit Cho, restaurants serving dog cuisine line both sides of the street with other small food vendors serving similar dishes squeezed in-between. Although some Thit Cho restaurants have existed here for more than a decade, the phenomenal popularity of such restaurants has only become apparent during the past few years. Unlike other conventional food outlets where a wide variety of cuisine is on offer, the Thit Cho offers only one gourmet choice: dog meat.
"I started dog meat trading 12 years ago," said Nguyet, the owner of one of the Thit Cho restaurants on this street. "My business has been brisk. Here dog meat has become even more popular than Vietnamese food. Most of our customers are teenage boys as well as adults. Traditionally, the Vietnamese, like the Chinese, believe that dog meat enhances health and longevity." This belief is still firmly rooted in Vietnamese society. Yet the dish is served only to the rich and the middle-class who can afford the high price (about 200 baht for a small serving).
Simple and open-air, most of the Thit Cho restaurants are built in the same fashion: a wooden house without seats or tables. Customers sit on the floor while they savour the dish. But before doing so, they must select which of the dogs in a nearby cage will be killed and cooked for their meal.
The "Thit Cho" restaurants in Vietnam offer a wide variety of dog meat dishes.
Although this sounds like animal torture, to those on this street, it is a way of life. Dog meat, for them, is just another food item.
The "Thit Cho" restaurants in Vietnam offer a wide variety of dog meat dishes. Although this sounds like animal torture, to those on this street, it is a way of life. Dog meat, for them, is just another food item.
"I love eating dog meat while drinking liquor. It's tender and forms a low-fat diet. I come here every month with my friends," said one customer. Unlike other meats, dog meat cannot be eaten daily. Tradition prohibits consumption on the first day of the month, and misfortune will befall those who break this rule, according to local superstition.
"Most dog-meat lovers start eating after the tenth of the month, but the most suitable time is the last day of the month," said Hoang Quang Hai, a tour operator who frequently visits a Thi Cho restaurant.
The seasonal peak comes during the winter; as cold winds sweep through the country, Thit Cho restaurants are particularly congested with a steady flow of customers.
One reason is that consumption of dog meat is believed to increase heat in the human body, thus creating a warm energy that wards off the freezing weather. A typical menu offers customers 15 different dishes. Boiled, baked, grilled and fried are some of the choices. Livers and intestines are also served: One of the most popular delicacies is dog sausage - deep-fried intestines stuffed with spices and chopped meat. Dog's leg and tail soup is also on the menu.
The dishes are eaten with a special dip that is a mixture of shrimp paste, fish sauce, lemon juice, chilli and lemon grass.
On this street, the day begins in the wee hours of the morning when dogs are slaughtered and the meat sliced in preparation for the day's business - preparation which begins many hours before the first customer walks through the door.
Judging from the number of restaurants lining the street, it might seem that competition is fierce. However, demand is much higher than the supply, and the number of customers continues to increase, according to restaurant owners.
"Dog meat sells like hot cakes. Ten dogs are killed each day but quite often we sell almost everything by early evening, with nothing left for other customers who come late," Nguyet said. About 80 percent of the dog meat aficionados, she said, are regular customers from Hanoi; the rest are from other provinces. The supply of fresh dogs for these restaurants comes in a rather unconventional manner. Dog vendors peddle their living wares caged in two baskets attached to their bicycle's back seat.
Restaurant operators like Nguyet select and buy dogs while they are alive. Most are transported into Hanoi from rural areas, especially from Bang Ninh and Tien Quang provinces. All are raised as domestic pets before being sold as food to a dog vendor. "The vendors do not come to Hanoi that often, so I have to buy as many dogs as I can to stock up - about 30 dogs at a time. They are kept in the cages for a few days before being killed," Nguyet said. Only the healthy ones are killed for their meat. Any dog that shows signs of illness or disease is screened out, she explained. The prices of live dogs vary, depending on their weight (one kilogramme is about 60 baht). Big dogs with an average weight of 10 kilogrammes are about the right size for shop owners. "Grown-up dogs provide tender, sweet meat," Nguyet said. "There's no difference between the meat of male and female dogs; they are equally delicious." According to Nguyet, the price of dog has been constantly increasing, along with the demand. A few years ago, one kilogramme of dog meat was about 20 baht; now it is about three times higher. One customer attributed the Thit Cho phenomenon to an improved economy. As more Vietnamese become affluent, they can better afford luxury food, including dog cuisine, he said.
"Dog consumption has always been part of our eating habit, but now we can afford it more often than before," he said.
After consumption, leftovers - such as bones - are sent to factories to be ground up as feed for chickens and pigs. Not all Vietnamese eat dog meat, however. Many find it distasteful, deeming the consumption of man's best friend immoral. "I have tried the dish but don't like it. I felt guilty chewing dog meat because I myself have dogs as pets and they might find out what I have been doing to other dogs," said Nguyen Hong Quang. Whether or not eating dog is immoral depends largely on each cultural context, said Dr Artha Nantachukra of Maha Sarakham University who heads the Southeast Asian Research Association in Vietnam. "Dog consumption has long been practised by some minority groups in countries like China and Vietnam. No moral questions had ever been asked," Dr Artha said. "Dog has long been an integral part of life in certain ethnic communities," he said. "Apart from eating it, some minority people have also cooked dog meat and offered it to spirits as part of sacred ceremonies. "There is nothing right or wrong, seen from their cultural framework," he added. "Dog consumption is part of the culture of these minority people. And we have to take their cultural perspective into consideration if we want to learn more about their eating habits."Dr Artha says the eating culture is different in each community. "While Thais eat fermented fish, the Japanese enjoy eating raw fish. There is nothing wrong with that. However, what makes dog eating a controversial issue is that humans worldwide treat dogs affectionately as pets. "But in Vietnam, dogs are viewed the same way people look at buffaloes and cows: They are meant to be food," Dr Artha said.
As an anthropologist, Dr Artha has observed that in northern Vietnam where many ethnic groups live, dog meat consumption is not uncommon.
"Those who eat dog meat are no different from the rest of us," he said. "It's just that they live in a different environment and have developed a distinct culture of their own."