2012 (Pilot Project)

Dog stew anyone?: On eating dogs in Korea

On Dog Eating

The weather turned brutally chilly all of a sudden today in Toronto, which makes me yearn for the hot summer days. This happens every year: I wish it was summer during the icy winter season and then I wish it was winter during the sweaty summer season. But anyways, thinking about the hot summer days reminded me of the first time I learned of an odd yet familiar summer tradition of South Korea – eating bosintang, or dog stew during the hottest days of summer. In fact, one of the most frequent questions I get about Korea is: “Is it true that Koreans eat dogs?!” While it is true that there are Koreans that eat dogs, I only met a handful of people that have tried them, and even fewer people that eat them on a regular basis.

I still remember vividly the tense and awkward expression S., my Korean friend, had when he attempted to explain the dog stew cuisine to a dozen of his foreigner friends including me.  I assume that he felt the same agony and embarrassment I feel whenever I have to explain to my non-Taiwanese friends why we eat rotten tofu (stinky tofu). So for my entry today, I want to talk about dog eating. It’s one of the most controversial “traditions” of South Korea that is continuously bashed on by non-dog eaters around the world. While I understand why people are so quick to criticize when it comes to eating dogs (I own three dogs myself – poodle, cockapoo, and chowchow), it is only right to have a bit of an understanding before opposing it.

Gaegogi-01

photo of dog meat stew in wikipedia

History of Dog Consumption in S. Korea

Although the dates vary depending on the source, eating dog has started from roughly around 3000 years ago in “Korea” (remember, nation state is a fairly new concept in human history). Historians say that Chinese began eating dogs 7000 years ago. Quite possibly then, Koreans inherited this tradition some where along the history.

The following report is evidence that shows that consuming dog meat isn’t a modern phenomenon, but rather has its roots in the far past. Take a look at the mural from the Goguryeo Dynasty (37 BC to 668 AC), found in the 4th century tomb at Goguryeo An-ak 3 for instance. Although it’s quite hard to decipher from the print we have, it illustrates a dog slaughtered together with other animals. Hanging from the hooks from left to right, we see a dog, sheep/deer, and a wild pig.

Historically, dogs in Korea (like most other places) were never bred for companionship, but rather for labor and food. Dogs were treated more or less as livestocks just like pigs, and were often fed human feces (back in the days when food was precious).

Two recent historical events that caused an increase in dog meat consumption were the Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953). Severe famine during both times probably have led more people to turn to dogs as food.

Today

You might say,

Okay, so Koreans ate dogs during the hungry intervention/war period. I mean, what won’t you eat if you’re borderline dying of starvation? But isn’t Korea rich now?

Good point, Korea began to flourish economically since the 60s and 70s, and starvation no longer is a problem. But tradition doesn’t simply disappear over night. Dog consumption is steadily decreasing, but the health benefits of dog meat are still believed by many.

Here are some of the things that people think is beneficial from eating dog meat:

  • Stamina
  • Reducing sweat during summer
  • Warms the blood during winter
  • Strengthens the immune system

Today, there are 530 restaurants in Korea that are registered to serve dog meat, and 100,000 tons of dog meat is consumed in South Korea annually. The 5 zeros may make the number seem awfully large, but it actually isn’t. Koreans eat 900,079,938 tons of pork yearly, so in comparison dog meat consumption is very little.

Also, while Korea is notoriously well known for being the “Dog Eater,” this delicacy is not something only Koreans enjoy. In fact, many other countries including Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and China eat dogs.

The Cuteness factor

The thing that makes people so emotional about dog eating is, in my opinion, because dogs are cute and are known as the “man’s best friend” while cows, pigs, and chicken aren’t. As a dog-owner and cow/pork/chicken-eater, I try to be objective and ask myself, how is a dog any different from a cow? (or pork, chicken and all the other animals that many believe is okay to eat?) Cows are also known to be emotional, highly intelligent animals yet there isn’t much protest against cow eating compared to dog eating. So are we now to classify food depending on their cuteness?

According to that logic, all animals should be banned from eating… only prohibiting dogs or cats just seems unreasonable and unfair (if I were to think in a cow’s perspective)! And that is a life-style choice that many people have decided on – to be vegetarian or vegan. But eating dogs, cats, cows, rabbits, deer, or horse is also a personal choice people make.

Embrace differences 

Unfortunately (or so I see it as), when Korea held the Olympic in 1988, the Korean government made eating dogs illegal. Likewise, China has banned all restaurants from putting “dog meat” on the menu during the recent Olympics (though you can still get it quite easily). But after the 1988 Olympics, culture of eating dog still existed in Korea. During the 2002 world cup, Korea again prohibited eating dogs. But dog eating still exists up to this date.

Still, remember that dog stew is considered special delicacy and it is not something that is eaten on a daily basis. Also, it’s only been about 20 years since Korea started to adopt dogs as pets. So while it may seem odd that some Korean people eat dogs, they genuinely think it’s natural – like eating beef or pork.

With the rise of anti-dog eating campaigns, cruel images of dog slaughter carried out by Korean butchers are plastered all over the web, but seriously this is not the norm! I know of many Korean people who love and adore their dogs and in general, Korean food is mostly vegetables (in comparison to many other cuisine). And even if hypothetically dog-eating is prevalent, we must really think again why there is so much stigmatization around eating dogs.

So while I won’t be eating dog soon, I just hope people (not just Koreans) don’t have to be ashamed of what they eat, whether it’s a dog, a horse, or stinky tofu.

12 replies »

  1. You are totally right about the sensitivity of the topic. In addition, you did a fantastic job in elaborating the cultural implications behind bosintang. However, I am aware that the dish is not particularly popular amongst young adults in this generation. Overall, I really enjoyed reading this article. Great job!!!

  2. Thanks for the historical context. I rather think that if Westerners are okay with butchering and consuming cute little piglets, then there shouldn’t be the double standard against Koreans eating dog meat. I think, however, that the gratuitous mistreatment of animals raised and processed for meat by independent and/or big meat industries that is the more disturbing phenomenon.

  3. Tina, nice job elaborating on one of those topics that is so easy to dismiss as being
    ‘wrong’ without a back-story and some degree of objectivity.
    When I lived in Seoul I was invited to a close friend’s bachelor night dinner (set up by the father of the bride) and sure enough we ate at a restaurant specializing in bosintang – it was located in Hongdae of all places. I have to say, if I didn’t know otherwise I would have thought I was enjoying a bowl of tasty beef stew.

  4. Lived in Korea for about two years, teaching IBT test prep in Bundang. Can’t remember if it was an essay topic or extemporaneous speaking topic, but, went along the lines of, “Should pets be treated as family members?”

    Student’s hook, “Most people see a cute, loving, member of the family when they look at their pet dog. All I see: emergency food supply.”

    The whole class busted up laughing. Kid actually drew the thing out quite well and logically too.

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