Trying dog stew in Korea

Trying dog stew in Korea

by David Baker
Korea Haps archives

BUSAN, South Korea -- Last year over dinner, my Kiwi friend and I happened across the topic of eating dog meat – he had eaten it before and said that he enjoyed it. As most westerners tend to shy away from such fare, it took me by surprise. After all, he didn’t look like someone who would eat dog meat. I mean, he didn’t have long arms with knuckles dragging the floor or over-sized fangs protruding from his mouth  – he looked like a “normal” person.

So went my stereotype.

My friend then added: “It tastes like beef or mutton depending on how it’s cooked.”

It gave me pause. How could he suggest that what most people in the world consider to be man’s best friend, tastes like a grocery store-shelf-farm-animal? He then asked if I would like to try some. I laughed. I like to try new things. Heck, I'm in Korea. Why not?, I thought.

I was well aware that dog meat is a traditional Korean dish which has been eaten in Korea to promote good health and well-being for thousands of years, and it's said to make men more virile. I could use more virility and good health and it did sound like somewhat of an adventure. I replied, “Sure, why not, how about next weekend?”

I suddenly asked myself: Did I just say yes to eating dog meat? I mean, I love dogs. Ever since I was a child, I have loved them. I still carry a picture of my own beloved, but long-dead pooch in my wallet. How could I have so readily agreed to partake in such an act of treason to my dog’s memory?

My friend said “Great! I have an Aussie friend who loves dog meat, too. He’ll come along with us.”

Wonderful, another witness to my canine treachery, I thought.

The weekend finally arrived. I met my friend at 12:30 p.m. He smiled and asked, “So you haven’t chickened out on me, huh?” I smiled back and sheepishly said “No, not yet,” with “not yet” being the operative words. I have to admit, I was losing my nerve as we walked towards my date with dog-eating destiny.

I asked my friend: “What else do they have on the menu?” He just laughed. In other words I was having dog meat and dog meat only, period.

Walking through the back streets to get to the restaurant, I didn’t really think about the meal I was about to have. I was too busy looking at all of the girlie bars and love motels popping up all around me  – places where unmarried couples and unfulfilled spouses go to indulge in carnal pleasures.

We finally arrived at the restaurant. I thought that it would be in some lonely, abandoned area but it was situated in a nice quiet spot around the bustling Seomyeon area. Our Australian friend was there to meet us. After brief introductions and handshakes, we made our way to the front door.

The entrance to the cobblestone walkway of the restaurant was adorned with pictures of their table fare. There were pictures of various types of chicken dishes, pork and beef and also dog meat dishes. Had I not known they were dog, the pictures of the meat could have very well been any other type of meat. If it weren’t for my friend pointing it out, I would have been none the wiser and ignorance would still be bliss.

We were met at the doorway of the restaurant by a smiling fifty-ish looking hostess who directed us to take off our shoes, leave them at the door and follow her. We were led upstairs to the dining area where there were about five tables about a foot and a half off the floor.

The restaurant was tastefully decorated with candles encased in glass, and soft, Korean music piping in from speakers around the room. We were the only customers there at the time. Being that it was summer (which is when this meal is traditionally eaten) she turned on a couple of fans and we were given seat cushions to sit on. Not only was I about to eat dog meat, but I was going to do it sitting in the Buddha’s lotus position.

After being seated on the floor, the same petite, raven-haired lady who greeted us at the door took our order. My Kiwi friend, in Korean, asked for “plum wine, rice, beer and Bosintang.” At that point, my ignorance of what I was actually doing quickly showed.

I asked: “What’s Bosintang?”

He smiled and said that's what Koreans call the dog meat stew. The word "Bosintang" literally translates into, “invigorating stew.”

A stew? It never occurred to me that this traditional Korean dish would be served as a stew. I just assumed that it would be served as a steak or something, but never a stew. The plum wine arrived first. I needed a drink. Then came the beer. I needed another drink. Then, out came three bowls of rice with three large steaming bowls of Bosintang. The moment had arrived.

As the bowl was placed in front of me I just stared at it. It looked tasty enough. There were green onions, perilla leaves and various spices which gave the stew a pleasant aroma. And while pleasing to the nose and to the eyes, I still couldn't help but think of my dear departed dog and of all the fun we used to have.

My companions had no reservations, they started eating right away. I stared at the dish in front of me for another moment, perhaps to make sure that nothing in the broth started to move. The pieces of meat looked like beef, if only a bit lighter in color as they sat in their brown broth. I grabbed my chopsticks and poked at it.

As I did, my friend made a barking sound. “Ha-ha, very funny” I shot back.
There was no turning back. I am here in Korea and I am going to experience this first hand. So, I properly positioned my chopsticks in hand and went for it.

I picked up the thinly sliced meat and quickly shoved it into my mouth followed by some rice. I chewed and chewed and then chewed some more. Not that the meat was rubbery, I just wasn't ready to commit to the final step of  actually swallowing it.

Although it may have looked like beef, it had a taste closer to that of pork. I swallowed. I grabbed a glass of beer and drank it. There, it was done. I had taken my first bite of Bosintang. And you know what, to my surprise it wasn't that bad. In fact, it tasted …good.

I took another bite. Then, I had some more, and it was still good. I said to the guys “hey this IS good”. They laughed and said, “So, will you come with us again for more Bosintang next weekend?”

“Uhm, no, I'm busy next weekend. Maybe some time in the future.”

Even though the meal was tasty and actually quite enjoyable, I just couldn't get past the thought of eating one of man's best friends. Besides, I didn't want them to think I was a convert or something. But there I was, in a dog meat restaurant, enjoying this traditional fare that so many people talk about. It was one of those things I had to experience for myself, though I am unsure if I will ever try it again.

In the coming week, Haps will run an opposition piece by noted local vegan blogger, Frankie Herrington

If you would like to learn more about the consumption of dog meat and the highly controversial industry, there are several links you can consult.

  • The Animal Rights Korea organization has up to date info on the dog meat debate in Korea here.
  • The fight for protecting dogs in China has also been bolstered by these photos of a recent intervention by dog activists. There is also a list of countries that consume dog meat, with Switzerland being the only western country on the list.

The opinions stated above are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Korea Haps.

Related articles in Stripes Korea: The fight against the dog meat industry; Dog Meat and the Cultural Conquistadors

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