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Friend or food again: Dog meat controversy in Vietnam

Friend or food again: Dog meat controversy in Vietnam

Friday, February 23, 2024, 13:50 GMT+7
Friend or food again: Dog meat controversy in Vietnam
A dog meat restaurant in Hanoi. Photo: Nam Tran / Tuoi Tre

And away we go, as the periodic debate surrounding the consumption of dog meat bubbles up again in Vietnam!

A couple of recent local events garnered public attention; first, a dog meat restaurant in Hoi An just announced its closure, then a dog slaughterhouse in northern Vietnam ceased operations.

Most recently, many relished reports of a dog meat seller dying of rabies after a dog bite.

Like most, I view dogs as beloved pets, a joy to be around, loving and loyal members of the family.

Various cultures view animals differently – ever had bear paw soup? It's an exclusive delicacy in many Asian and European countries reputed to wield many magical powers.

Or ‘civet de chevreuil’ (venison), popular in several European cuisines? How about the French classic ‘lapin a la moutarde’ (rabbit cooked in mustard)?

Many claim rabbits are the cutest little critters anywhere and it's hard to disagree with that.

Rabbits are cherished domestic pets all over the world, so isn't it barbaric to hack up that defenseless little beast, chop off its head and adorable little ears, and toss it in a pot?

What about a fish just swimming around minding its own business?

Poor thing impales itself on a hook, gets whacked over the head, and presto, we have dinner.

I've always felt it odd that some Western diners order a fish with instructions that its head be lopped off before plating.

Why the head would creep out some diners is beyond me; perhaps they don't want to be reminded that the fish was recently very alive, just the way that rabbit was gleefully hopping around.

If some think a fish head is cause for squeamish reactions, it's peanuts compared to these: squishy grilled pig's rectum, squirming live larvae, barbecued scorpions, grilled crickets (a Happy Hour fave in Vietnam, magic with a beer), as well as stewed beef testicles, revered on several continents.

Have you ever noticed the absolute delight on local faces when foreigners enjoy their cuisine, especially the offbeat favorites?

What resonates and creates the strongest bonds? Fine arts, architecture, technology, sociology, history – hell no!

The common denominator and catalyst for the deepest connections between local and visitor is food shared around the table.

A typical maneuver the Vietnamese hosts like to pull on foreigners is to slyly include "tiết canh" (raw duck or pork blood pudding) to find out if we're really into it all or just faking.

Nice try guys; I'm game, and oh how gamey that duck blood is, even when adorned with peanuts!

What is deemed edible around the globe is based on tradition, climate, cost, religion, availability, cooking techniques, and an array of other factors.

In our newer western countries, we're generally unaccustomed to scarcities of animals that provide food.

We're blessed with the money and means to bring them to market so we can enjoy them without needing to be creative and money-conscious with our food sources.

Religion also plays a large role in what is eaten around the world.

In predominantly Islamic Indonesia, beef is an everyday staple while pork is "haram" (against Islamic rules), considered a vile animal void of basic hygiene and unfit for human consumption.

Hop a couple of kilometers from Java over the Bali Strait and "babi guling" (suckling pig) is widely enjoyed, indeed the best version I've ever had.

The Balinese majestically butcher that little piggy, using all parts, dishing up a heavenly bread-based stuffing with (wonder of all wonders) gravy to round out the meal.

The Balinese are Hindu, so cows are worshipped instead of eaten, while piggies are woofed down like there's no tomorrow.

Most interesting is neither chastises the other’s choices, nor passes judgement on the other's customs.

While those examples may seem distant and obscure to many of us, the two religions involved are practiced by 40 percent of humanity.

How then do some food preferences fuel emotional debate in our societies while others are perceived as charming, quaint and worthy of respect?

Foreigners I've spoken to actually think this scenario plays out in Vietnam:

Mom: "Did you pick up the chicken I asked you to buy?"

Dad: "Damn, knew I forgot something!"

Mom:  "Never mind."

Then, brandishing a cleaver, calls out to the family doggie:  

"Rover, step outside boy."

That example is absurd as nearly everyone distinguishes between a beloved family member and companion and a wild, savage beast to hack up and throw on the grill.

My Vietnamese friends don't get emotional about eating dog meat; they see it more as a personal preference.

When I broached this topic, a Vietnamese friend countered by asking if I've ever visited a poultry factory and seen how chickens are bred and stuffed with chemicals that increase meat volume until slaughter.

Those helpless chickens are packed into tiny spaces unfit for any living being, yet we buy them without remorse because they're all packaged up nicely in the supermarket.

The friend’s point was how can one animal be deemed acceptable for human consumption while the other is not?

I know of lots of canines in western homes that enjoy a much richer diet than many people in developing countries.

That's no exaggeration; I've seen plenty of doggies knocking back steak, salmon, and chicken while large contingents of homeless in our countries root through garbage bins for food because they have nothing to eat.

Something is very wrong with those values, I don't care how cute their dog is.

Consumption of dog meat became common in Asian countries where people couldn't avail of nor afford the common meats now sold commercially.

Just over 30 years ago, nearly two-thirds of the population of Vietnam lived below the poverty line - the domestic line that is - not some lofty international standard.

Damn right if you imagine they were thrilled to get any meat at all, never mind being choosy about which animal it originated.

One Vietnamese diner to another circa 1990:

"Please pass the meat bro."

"Sure. Remember that field mouse I nailed this morning?"


"It's him."

“Works for me.”

That scene still plays out today even though many Vietnamese can afford to eat what they wish, simply because they relish the tradition.

That said, there are still many in Vietnam that can't afford much, so they're grateful for what they get.

The other thing I respect about older cuisines steeped in tradition is how every smidgen of animals is coveted.

And I mean everything – organs, cartilage, intestines, tripe, genitals, hairy ears, noses - nothing is wasted.

These traditions grew out of necessity because average people needed creative ways to keep their bellies full and stretch their cash.

In contrast, supermarkets in our developed countries are packed with meat full of sketchy preservation agents, then dressed up and dyed pretty pink and red, with all offending beaks, snouts, claws and paws removed so they're appealing to the naïve consumer.

Therefore, any debate about what is acceptable food is moot because tastes and tradition vary so widely.

With that discussion shelved, it's really about who's best placed to pass judgement on which beasts get eaten.

It's presumptuous enough that we as visitors in Vietnam are not doing as the Romans do when in their house, but some also feel compelled to dictate what locals eat.

Does our status as innovators and purveyors of technology entitle us to pass judgement on other countries’ culinary traditions that go back millennia?

Absolutely not, yet many of us behave as if we know better, anointing ourselves as the World Food Police, roaming around to educate the heathen.

It wouldn't be so arrogant except for countries like Vietnam with culinary arsenals consisting of thousands of dishes that leave our young fast food microwave cuisines floundering in the dust.

Let's reverse the roles to further illustrate: Envisage foreigners who emigrate to our countries, then take one look at some of the things we call food, and give them a miss, preferring their own grub.

That’s commonplace, but then those guests begin dictating how and what we should consume in our house. 

Looking through a western lens such a scenario on our turf would obviously be considered an insult.

The culinary world is constantly developing and reinventing itself, so why not let water seek it's own level when it comes to food preferences?

The best approach is to let those attitudes evolve; step down from the pulpit and take a seat, and seek to understand.

After all, when it comes to food, we westerners are the little fish in a big pond.

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Rick Ellis / Tuoi Tre News Contributor


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