*Warning: this post contains references to eating dog meat every…1.5 sentences or so, so those who are currently offended by such practices or think they might be while reading this post might be better off skipping this. Or maybe they’ll learn something about the food practices of a different culture. It isn’t that bad, really. Okay, it might be a little bad. Horrifying for others. It’s up to you, really.
It’s hilarious that these few weeks of July and August are called the dog days in Western culture. Sure, it may have come from the heliacal rising of Sirius, the Dog Star, during this period, but it’s an interesting bit of cultural convergence that the Western dog days overlap with the Korean dog days, or boknal. Which are usually translated to dog days because they coincide with the Western dog days and, well, guess what Koreans traditionally eat on those days?
Now, there are three Korean dog days that run between July and August, chobok (first dog day), joongbok (middle dog day), and malbok (last dog day). Collectively they are known as sambok (three dog days) and this twenty day period is usually the hottest time of the year. Bok actually doesn’t mean dog or even day, the Chinese character 伏 actually means “to crouch” or “to crawl.” But those well-versed or even partially-versed in Chinese characters will immediately notice that the character is a combination of the characters for man (亻) and dog (犬), which is probably where the tradition of eating dog came from. Because there’s a dog right there in the name, and a person next to it! Surely the person must eat the dog, no?
The practice of eating dog in Korea has been around for a while, probably coming from the ancient Chinese practice of sacrificing dogs on these summer days to prevent pests ruining harvests. This dates back to at least the Warring States period, and there is evidence that dog consumption has been around the Korean peninsula for a similarly long time. Dog bones in prehistoric sites and paintings of dogs in slaughterhouses and the like. A book from the Chosun dynasty on Korean customs noted the practice of consuming something called gaejangguk (dog stew), a stew made with green onions and Szechuan peppers, during the sambok period. This dish is better known nowadays as boshintang (literally, soup for protecting or invigorating the body), the most popular form of consuming dog. As indicated by the name of the dish, dog meat is considered quite good for the body, whether by recharging energy sapped by muggy summer days and nights or by giving men increased virility. Not that I believe any of that, but it’s what gets people to seek out dog meat. Other dishes include suyuk, which is a catch-all term for boiled meats (but if you’re in a boshintang restaurant, it’s probably going to be dog), and gaesoju, which, yes, is exactly what you fear it is. Soju containing dog meat and other medicinal things, which is a thing because again, men’s stamina or something.
There’s been much controversy over the practice of consuming dog meat in Korea. Legally, it’s in an almost deliberately murky legal area, as dogs are not considered livestock and therefore not subject to the same sort of stringent standards as cows, pigs, or chickens, and animal protection laws only prohibit killing animals for no apparent reason, and since eating it is an apparent reason, dogs slaughtered for soups don’t get that protection. But really, there is no good reason why the police would want to get between a man and his boshintang. They probably enjoy a good bowl of dog on hot summer days themselves. So even if it isn’t quite legal, no one really wants to go after the issue.
However, there still are many problems with the practice. For one, there are some seriously fucked up ways of slaughtering dogs for their meat. Some methods involved hanging dogs on trees and beating them to death, using wires to electrocute them, things usually found in a North Korean torture manual because the cruelty inflicted allegedly made the meat taste better. Now that’s bonkers, but hey, people happen to do incredibly stupid things if they’re convinced they’re true (see fan death). Thankfully, due to mounting criticism both from home and abroad, the number of dog lynchings has probably dropped dramatically, and even if it does happen, well, those people are a dying breed. And even if those dogs are slaughtered humanely, the fact is that most if not all of the dog meat that is sold in Seoul’s Gyeongdong Market is basically factory farmed dog, raised in unsanitary, cramped cages until the day they die. Because remember, no regulations for dog meat.
Sidenote: just because Koreans eat dog meat doesn’t mean we eat all dogs. It’s not like people are capturing their pets and putting them in pots to make stews. Admittedly, there are variations of a story that goes like this: a man goes to his in-laws’ house and his mother-in-law has prepared a pot of delicious and stamina-increasing boshintang for him. He notices the family Yorkie isn’t running around yapping like usual and when he opens the lid, he finds Pooky staring right back at him! In the past when eating dog was a more popular thing, there were people who went around kidnapping other peoples dogs regardless of breed to sell them for meat. In fact, that is the suspected fate of one of my dad’s favorite dogs, who loved wondering around the neighborhood until one day he didn’t come back. But nowadays, there is a specific breed that is kept primarily for consumption called the nureongi (yellow dog, so…yeller?), which are medium-sized, spitz-type dogs with yellowish fur. They look very meaty.
So what does dog taste like? Although I was curious to find out, I didn’t get the chance until earlier this year. Dog meat isn’t one of those things that you suggest first if you haven’t had it yourself. That’s just weird. I was meeting a couple of my buddies from my time in the Army for lunch. One of them suggested boshintang and of course, he asked if I was okay with it because now days it’s a preference that not many people share. So we met up and got some tang. It was a reddish bubbly broth with perilla leaves and of course, meat. It came with a pepper paste that you dipped the meat in as some sort of sauce. So I took my chopsticks, fished out some meat from my bowl, dipped it in the sauce, and tried it.
Now, I’ve heard a lot about how dog meat tastes, so I had a good idea of what it would be like. People usually say that it tastes like beef, but a bit sweeter, which is why North Koreans call it dangogi, or sweet meat. I guess that means tender. And that was the impression that I got. It actually reminded me of veal, which is in many circles an equally morally reprehensible (but so, so delicious) meat. I guess it was tasty, but I think the broth had to do with that more than anything. I have a soft spot for those kinds of red Korean stews that have lots of perilla in them, Whether they involve minced loach, pork shoulder, or I guess, dog. It wasn’t anything mind blowing or world changing, just a kind of new meat. And it certainly wasn’t liquid Viagra or whatever people seem to think it was.
And of course there is the image issue. Dog eating is seen by the civilized (read: Euro-centric) world as a barbaric practice better associated with the Dothraki than a proper culture, no matter how ethically the dogs were raised (in fact, wouldn’t free-range dog basically be pets? Or feral?). Although the Korean government did try its best to clamp down on the practice before international events like the 1988 Seoul Olympics and 2002 FIFA World Cup, there were still protests that revolved around this issue. Famous French actress/singer Brigitte Bardot led the charge for a boycott of the 2002 World Cup in South Korea because of the purported animal cruelty involved in eating dog meat, causing FIFA to demand that the Korean government to address this issue. Which considering FIFA’s indifference over the human rights of migrant workers in Qatar is very, very telling.
The way I see it, dog meat isn’t any more morally objectionable than veal or any other controversial animal product (I’m looking at you, foie gras). In fact, it might even be less so. You might own a dog and all of your interactions with Sparky might have convinced you of the canine race’s nascent sentience. So you might have reservations about eating a bowl of Sparky’s distant relative. But then again, pigs are supposed to be pretty smart, and we love to eat them without the slightest bit of regret, don’t we? And although there are big problems with the whole factory farming aspect of the dog meat industry, isn’t that the same for most of the meat that we consume these days (aside from the free-range ethically-raised stuff which we should all be eating, but simply isn’t available to the vast majority of consumers)? The thing is, our dietary restrictions and freedoms were based on the whims of history and culture, so just because you think eating dog is gross doesn’t mean it’s wrong for your friend to do so. Within reason, of course. If they start talking about stringing up live dogs or something like that, CALL THE POLICE. But if they’re just going for a bowl of dog soup in a country where such things aren’t illegal, don’t judge them. Or at the very least be aware that someone might judge you as harshly for that bacon cheeseburger you had yesterday (I can think of three religions that would have issues with you). So will I eat another bowl of dog soup? Probably not, but not because I’m a former dog owner or because I have issues with the way the meat is raised. To be honest, dog’s pretty expensive for what it is.