Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Eating Dog in Hanoi

Vietnamese people love dogs. They keep them as pets. They also eat them, or at least some do.

Dog eating has deep roots in Vietnam; it is a practice steeped in ritual, and associated with certain dates on the lunar calendar. Dog meat (thịt chó) may be eaten for various reasons aside from culinary pleasure, such as to increase male virility or bring about good luck. By some estimates, Hanoi accounts for up to half of all the dogs eaten in Vietnam, so if I was ever going to chow on chow, Hanoi would be the place to do it.

Saturday, my friend Nhung was stinging from a bad haircut, Phương had had a recent string of bad experiences, and a spate of bone-jarring noisy construction was forcing me out of the house I'd been living in for the past seven months. It was past the mid-point on the lunar calendar, shortly past the Julian New Year, and a propitious time for eating dog. So Nhung, Phương and I collectively decided to go out for thịt chó in hopes of reversing our fortunes. For me, curiosity provided an added incentive; in all my years living in Asia, I had only tasted dog meat once, and I wanted to go in for the full thịt chó experience.

Traditionally, Vietnamese cuisine provides seven ways to cook dog, known collectively as cầy tơ bảy món. These seven dishes are:
  • Rựa Mận - Steamed dog meat with shrimp paste, rice flour, and lemongrass
  • Giềng Me Mắm Tôm - Steamed dog in shrimp paste, galangal, and rice vinegar
  • Thịt Chó Hấp - Steamed dog meat
  • Thịt Chó Nướng - Grilled dog meat
  • Dồi Chó - Dog sausage
  • Chó Xào Sả Ớt - Fried dog in lemongrass and chili
  • Canh Xáo Măng Chó - Bamboo and dog meat soup
The dog restaurant we went to, just past the north side of the Old Quarter, was one I'd passed many times. Unlike some countries, where dog is eaten in hidden alleys, Hanoi flouts its affection for eating Fido. Dog stands can be found throughout the city, selling cooked canines like any other meat. The restaurant we went to, on a busy street corner, was a well-known purveyor of canine cuisine, and a solid choice to provide the full-on sampler.
It was shortly past seven when we walked into the crowded restaurant. We passed the downstairs tables and headed upstairs to be served in the traditional style: sitting on woven bamboo mats. A young man laid some newspapers on the floor; we sat down and various herbs, lime, salt, chilis, lemongrass stalks, sliced cucumbers, and large crispy sesame-seeded crackers known as bánh đa, were placed between us. Oh yes, and mắm tôm, a ghastly fermented shrimp paste that a reader to one of my previous posts called "shit in a can." An apt description, but apparently a necessary part of the thịt chó experience.

The prepared dishes followed quickly after and were all spread out before us. A veritable banquet of mastif proportions! As a whole, the meat of your cuddly pet is not quite like any other mammal I've ever tasted. It has the sinuousness and grain of beef, but is surprisingly fatty, like pork. It's actually a very rich food, highly nutritious, and fattening if eaten often. The seven traditional dishes – using different parts of the dog (the Vietnamese are expert at not letting food go to waste) – each play to either the beefiness or porkiness of the meat.

The first dish I tried was the Rựa Mận, a plate of room-temperature meats served like cold-cuts. The proper procedure, I was told, was to wrap a piece in an herb called lá mơ, and dip it in the mắm tôm. This could be followed with a bite of lemongrass or other herbs, if desired. I expected to have a visceral reaction to eating dog, but in fact I found it perfectly normal. The meat had a rather pleasant, beefy texture, with no discernable smell or strong taste, outside of the mắm tôm.
The Thịt Chó Nướng – grilled dog meat – however, was another matter. In this dish, fatty cuts from the neck and back are basted in a galangal-flavored marinade, grilled, and topped with shaved galangal. It was delicious! While reminiscent of pork, the meat had a deep earthiness that worked very well with the galangal. This was clearly a method of preparation that expressed the uniqueness of dog.
The Chó Xào Sả Ớt, on the other hand, while quite tasty, could just as easily have been prepared with any other meat. The spices balanced well with each other, but I felt the taste of the dog was masked. And this was my reaction to most of the dishes I sampled. While flavorful – save for the dog sausage, which I didn't particularly care for – there was little to make dog, as a flavor experience, particularly unique. Whereas lamb has a distinct taste that shines through most recipes, dog disappears into its method of preparation. When prepared like pork, it could just as easily be pork; when prepared like beef, it could just as easily be beef. When it comes to meats, I felt there was little to make dog stand out from the pack, so to speak.
What was palpable, however, was a strong sense of community among the diners. Maybe because dog meat borders the edge of cultural taboos, even in Vietnam, the sense among the diners was of a select group enjoying a secret and decidedly naughty pleasure. As the only Westerner, I was greeted warmly, with toasts and smiles from other customers. Before too long, it felt quite normal to be among my friends and fellow diners. At the end of the day, we were all the same. We were eaters of man's best friend.
It's an experience I thoroughly enjoyed, though I probably shall not have it again. While I have little tolerance for some of the arguments I've heard against eating dog, for me dog eating sits in a moral gray zone. I shall like to explore the complex morality of this practice in a future post; for now, let me accept the experience as it was presented to me: as a unique culinary adventure and an opportunity to bond with friends.

Oh yes, and the day after eating dog, I signed a lease for a lovely, one-bedroom apartment in central Hanoi. So perhaps, eating dog brought me good fortune after all.


  1. Hal:
    I love the way you inserted canine metaphors in throughout this blog post. I could not help but think about some better names for the entrees, such as Spaniel Soup with a side of Dachshund Sausage. Perhaps an order of Irish Terrier Stew would be good on St. Patrick's Day. In America there are still folks that eat horse meat. I remember the horsemeat market places around town when I was a child. Many Asians think eating horse meat is in bad taste. I get asked about Vietnamese people eating dog meat often. The only reply I can ever come up with is: "My wife's family does not eat dog." I am not sure if this has always been the case though. If times were tough for me, I would gladly choose dog meat over other things people have eaten to stay alive.

  2. It is inhumane and cruel to eat dog meat. Not all vietnamese love it and I think only people in the north do as they were too poor and used to starve to death in the past. That's why they ate their own pets and thought it was lucky enough to stay alive for doing so.

  3. Ooh your pictures turned my stomach. Funny that as a fellow American (and evergreener!) and former Hanoi resident my reaction to the dog meat feast experience was precisely the opposite of yours: I felt no moral issue -I don't understand how one can make distinctions between animals that are right and wrong to eat. But the taste of dog meat, egad, so vile.

    I suppose it could have been in my head but I thought the fat had a wet dog odor similar to how lamb fat has a lanolin odor. Maybe the one I was served was old and yours was young. I'm also not a big meat lover in general and am sensitive to meat tastes and even dislike beef fat especially when cold.

    I agree that grilled was the best preparation by far. The soup was the most foul but I don't like a strong bamboo flavor either so the combination was just way more than I could take... would rather have the cold meat with mam tom and that is saying something.

  4. I wonder if there's a Sabrett stand in Hanoi. ;)

    Happy New Year Hal!

  5. I don't eat meat at all, but I thought your post was very interesting.

  6. OMG! Dogs are our loyal pets. Hello???? You people are all nuts. Eat to live not live to eat. if one said there is no distinction between animals then you can eat human beings too since we are also animals. Eating dog is morally wrong.

    1. Morally wrong?
      What do you know about morality?
      NOTHING is the answer!!!
      Dog is potential meat...that's it!! Nothing wrong with it!!
      In today's age with a ever increasing population and all the issues that we only begin to face in order to feed us all we still have people that have the nerves to be fussy about what different cultures explore.
      You're probably the kind of person who thinks it's perfectly normal to spend hundreds of dollars on toileting your dog and buying it stupid little coats.
      In tomorrow's world I hope people will start to realise that Asia is probably right in its approach.
      Even though eating insects, frogs and all sort of animals, as long as they are not endangered, can be dauting at first this source of protein is definitely part of our future.
      So I urge people to try and get past their mental barriers and taste something different.

  7. Happy New Year!

    Interesting post.

    I have a few questions:

    As you know from having lived there yourself, in Korea, dog is usually considered a "man's" dish, that is, most people who eat it are men; most of the women I'd talked to about it said they had tried it perhaps once, if that. Of course, much of this is tied in with the notion that dog is a so-called stamina food, which from what I gather means it is something akin to Viagra. You noted that dog is also perceived as a stamina food in Vietnam, which leads me to ask: Do women eat dog as often as men do?

    In Korea, dogs are farmed, that is, the dogs that are eaten are not former pets or strays (contrary to popular belief). They are raised as meat, the same as chickens, pigs, cows, and so on. Is this the case in Vietnam?

    In Korea, dogs are routinely beaten before they are slaughtered. This supposedly infuses the meat with adrenaline, thereby increasing its stamina-giving potential. (I vividly remember the sounds of dogs being beaten by the neighborhood boshin-tang place in Seoul. Shudder.) To your knowledge, is this part of the preparation of Vietnamese dog?

    Lastly, is it your expereicence that the stamina claims have merit? ;)

    Hope your new apartment works out!

  8. 1st, mam tom turns out to be shrimp paste. How do you know this name?

    2nd, I'm really suprised that you can eat 'mam tom' and 'thit cho'

    3th, I don't understand at all. Why we, Vietnamese, are supposed to be imhumane when eating dog. In Worldcup 2002, Korea was boycotted because of meat dog. Is it human rights violations? Cows are sacred to Hindus. Other people in the world must be very imhumane and cruel when eating cow, in their opinion. Can you stop eating cow?

  9. ah yes, Donalds post was almost exactly what in was thinking. And yes, in downtown Seoul the nightly beating of the dogs in the restaurant across the lane was at first an indistinguishable cry. Also, they burn the fur off with torches while the animal is alive.
    I find the moral issue confusing. What is wrong or right to eat? Perhaps Indians think it's morally wrong to eat cow??? Pete C.

  10. Should use the word "taboo" not the word "wrong." You do or you don't subscribe to a taboo on eating shellfish, cows, pork, dogs etc.

    True that eating humans is also just a taboo but it's a pretty strong one and of course legally enforced in every country I assume.

    To Donald: I'm female and went to thit cho with a group of Vietnamese co-workers, about 40% female. It was viewed as a little bit wild and exciting for the women to be going since it is traditionally a man's activity. What was worse is that women don't drink much alcohol, and there was only alcohol to drink, so I felt I had to restrain myself to avoid looking like a lush, when all I wanted was to wash the taste out of my mouth constantly.

    My opinion - the "boner foods" as I call them are the ones that are naturally distasteful like snake, rodent, insect and people create this mythology around them to make them more culturally palatable, especially when they are hungry and need to be willing to eat whatever's available.

  11. without making any comments on the morality of it all....this is a great post!! Glad to have discovered your site!

  12. I grew up in Saigon and left Vietnam in 1981. Prior to the end of the war in 1975, dogmeat was hard to find in the South. There were no "dogmeat restaurants", at least in Saigon.

    After the war ended, a lot of Northern Vietnamese settled in the South, and one began to see dogmeat restaurants open up. I had my first taste of dogmeat while in boot camp in 1979 (military service was compulsory back then). I did not find it particularly tasty.

    In the South, dogs are sometimes referred to as "the deers of the city" (nai thành phố).

    By the way, Hal, sausage is spelled "Dồi" and not "Đồi" (that would be a hill). So, Dog Sausage would be "Dồi Chó".

    Keep up the good work, I enjoy your writing.

  13. Here's a response to some of the comments that have said that it is wrong to eat dog meat. I know some fellow vegetarians/vegans who would argue that if you eat any type of meat, you really can't have an opinion about what type of meat is "wrong" or "right" to eat.
    In addition, as someone who has never eaten pork and who has not eaten meat in several years, I would make this argument: If you thing it's wrong, don't do it!

  14. Halito,
    Enjoyed reading your articulate and nicely considered discussion of eating Fido. Will look forward to reading other entries.

  15. Could you take a minute to reflect on the appeal of fermented fish sauce or shrimp paste, aka shit in a can? I'd like a rundown on how exactly my palate can be pleased by eating such stuff. My tastes may be a less catholic than yours, but even you are parochial enough to label it "ghastly shrimp paste." Reveal the hidden element of the psyche or stomach that allows fellow humans to consume this substance.

  16. I am the author of the "shit in a can" metaphor for shrimp paste, a few weeks/posts ago.

    To E X Press: to tell you the truth, I don't know what shrimp paste tastes like, because I never mustered enough courage to try it (and I was born and grew up in Saigon). Who knows? May be it doesn't taste as bad as it smells... The first time I saw and smelled roquefort cheese, I just about threw up. Later, when I lived in France, I came to like it.

  17. I think the roquefort analogy is apt: people have been aging, fermenting, and stinking up foods ever since the first hungry caveman mustered up enough courage to eat the moldy mammoth milk he'd accidentally let go bad.

    I like to play up my aversion to mắm tôm, but I get the appeal: it's basically a salt source, with a distinct seafood bite, not entirely unlike the fermented fish sauce found throughout SE Asia (which I love).

    As an accompaniment to grilled fish (Chả Cá), and mixed with the strong fish oils and heavy dose of onions, the mắm tôm works. It's just that the locals here like to eat it with tofu and other lighter fare, and in those cases I think you're basically ingesting something you should have left dead on the beach.

  18. I really enjoyed this article! You are at your best describing eating poor stolen pooches in grisly detail and stunning color photos, the hideous lenghts to which the depraved culinary culture of this not yet post-communist nation can fall. Bravo! I ate dog meat for the first time last year. It was oddly fatty. Rumor has it the street dogs are herded up periodicly here in Bangkok and shipped off to be fattened and butchered in the Thai outback. There indeed you can find roadside stands offering the stringy flesh of these captured canines at a very reasonalbe fee. This whole post could generate a back and forth about why we (people) don't eat babies and the morality of it - the basis for any morality at all. But alas...

  19. I really hope I get to go back to Hanoi to try some dog meat. Really interesting post, thanks.

  20. great post. can i use the photos on our site? I plan to write a blog roundup on this topic. will use your article as my main source. is it ok? Im mong palatino, southeast asia editor of global voices online. thanks

  21. In the country that the government treats people less than dogs. What is the point that not eating dog meat?
    I never try eating dog meat, but I see it is not different, for dog is animal too.

  22. What about some chocolate labrador for dessert?!!

  23. Holy Fido Batman!It looks as though you've struck a nerve amongst the readers of this blog.
    Dog eating used to be an exclusively northern tradition, even before the North/South split. Til this day, there are many southerners who find the pratice abhorent.

  24. Hello,

    What a very, very interesting article.

    I am carrying out a little research on dog meat eating and I would be very interested to contact and discuss this issue further with both dog meat eaters and those of a more anti-dog meat stance.

    I would also be very interested in finding out more about producers of dog meat in Hanoi.

    If anyone is interested, please contact me at elly@tiberiusproductions.com

    Many thanks.

  25. Eating dogs is just vietcon way of life, a culture and a mental state

    i agree with one poster here. If there is no distinction of meat, of thing, people will end eating human as simple animal meat in general. Human system of morality always imposes certain limit, certain code of morality and ethic to keep human human and to distinguish human from simple animal. So human reside at their place and animals theirs

  26. Pigs are extremely intelligent. Yet we eat them. Squabs are pigeons bred for meat, and we pay high price to eat them. Birds are intelligent and kept as pet and we eat them all the time. Monkeys are related to us, yet we do not scream when people eat them. Just because they are pet, does not mean that they can not be bred for meat. When you're poor and hungry enough, anything with protein is called food. We're a spoiled generation, putting down people who do not live like we do.

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