by aengelson | January 21st, 2011
I’ve lived in Hanoi now for a year and a half, and I have this mental list of things that have been nagging me: things I hadn’t tried yet. One philosophical point before I get started here: I see much of the expatriate experience as a journey of discovery, a way to learn about a culture and places different from my own, in ways that are more in-depth and significant than one can get by just being a traveler. Things you learn by living in place. That’s why, for instance, I’m studying the Vietnamese language–a skill I doubt will have a whole lot of usefulness once I’ve moved on.
So there are some things I felt I had to at least acknowledge and think about as an expat living in Hanoi. I have not yet visited Ho Chi Minh’s Masoleum (I’m not particularly interested in viewing a dead body). I haven’t yet seen a Vietnamese movie without subtitles (though my friend Erik did when he visited, and recently wrote about it here.) And then there was the issue of Hanoi’s dog restaurants…
I guess I should first clarify. This is not some sort of poverty-induced subsistence-by-necessity thing, although perhaps the practice of eating dogs in Vietnam first grew from dire necessity. Dog meat is considered a delicacy and is more expensive than the “normal” meat dishes such as bun cha (grilled pork with noodles) or beef pho. But it’s also not universally liked. Our Vietnamese housekeeper doesn’t particularly like dog meat, but her husband does.
I think my first inclination that I might have to confront the issue of dog meat was in conversation with my Vietnamese teacher. As we talked about different words for meat, inevitably, dog came up (thit cho). She said that she liked, it: that it was ngon (delicious). But she didn’t eat it very often. Well, I reasoned, if she liked it, then perhaps it was at least worth giving a try. After all, I’m so fond of telling my daughters at the dinner table: “just try it. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it.”
But dog…well, obviously, it’s pretty loaded for Americans. Dogs are our companions, our family members. I had dogs as pets growing up. I don’t currently own a dog, and I’m not what you’d call a pet person. So perhaps I don’t quite have the emotional investment in the issue of dog meat. In fact, Anthony Bourdain, the traveling TV foodie known for his adventuresome eating, draws the line at dog, readily admitting that it’s a completely irrational and in some ways hypocritical decision.
In America we love our pets. So much so, that Americans spend 41 billion dollars per year on their pets. To put that in perspective, the entire annual GDP of Vietnam is 92 billion dollars. Think about that.
I eat meat. I like the taste of meat. I am an omnivore, and I am intensely curious about foods. But I also understand and appreciate the arguments made for vegetarian and vegan lifestyles. For a time, back in Seattle, our family consciously ate less meat, and when we did, tried to find organic, non-factory farmed meat. As Jonathan Safran Foer points out in his book Eating Animals, eating meat, especially the 95 percent of the stuff that Americans eat which is factory-farmed–is the number one cause of global warming. Number one. So for a while we chose not to eat as much meat. But we still eat it. And I enjoy it enough that I don’t want to give it up.
In his book (which I have not read, but have read excerpts and interview), Foer at one point embarks on a Jonathan Swift-esque satirical argument: if we are going to eat meat, why not eat dogs? Especially since there’s the plentiful supply that are euthanized at animal shelters each year? It would be, he argues with tongue firmly in cheek, a cheap and environmentally benign source of protein. Of course, Foer isn’t seriously arguing for the widespread consumption of dogs, but to challenge our assumptions about the practice of killing and eating animals. Why is it, he wonders, that most Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of eating dogs, but perfectly willing to scarf down Chicken McNuggets or neatly packaged steaks of organically raised free-range beef?
Why indeed? And this, for me was the central issue I felt I needed to confront about the dog meat restaurants of Hanoi. Why is it I have qualms about eating at one of these restaurants, when I also, without so much as a thought, consume bowl after bowl of pork bun cha or beef pho bo–two dishes that would certainly cause revulsion for people of Muslim, Jewish, or Hindu backgrounds?
I strongly believe that those of us who eat meat need to confront the facts of our dining choices: if we’re uncomfortable with the fact that animals are killed to provide us food, then we shouldn’t be eating meat. Americans have distanced themselves from this fact, and as a result, destructive things like factory farming continue because we’ve disconnected ourselves from the reality of meat. That’s one reason I love Hanoi’s markets: you know what you’re eating. It’s not that you see animals slaughtered (except those poor frogs, but this is another story) but you are definitely aware this stuff comes from dead animals. No shrink wrap and styrofoam.
So…I proposed to my Vietnamese teacher we go to lunch at one of the thit cho restaurants popular in the north end of Hanoi, not far from where I live. My wife Joanie joined us. The place was Tran Muc, a well-regarded restaurant that was packed at lunchtime, mostly with men, but there were some women and kids there as well. It was clean, but spartan…we sat on bamboo mats and the food was brought out on a placemat of newspaper.
In Vietnam, dog is thought to be auspicious to eat at the end the lunar month or lunar year. Many restaurants close at other times, when it’s believed to be unlucky to eat dog. The meat is also thought to “warm the blood” (most foods and drinks for Vietnamese are closely intertwined with the Vietnamese idea of hot/cold humors in the body). Inevitably, it’s also seen as a virility-booster–hence all the men chowing on thit cho and tossing back a bunch of beer and rice liquor. So macho.
My teacher ordered for us. We tasted three dishes: cho doi (sausage), cho hap (boiled/steamed meat) and cho man (a kind of stewed meat, which is, unfortunately, pronounced “cho mutt”). The food was served with large rice crackers and a dish of fresh herbs and slices of lemongrass and galangal. Dipping sauces included muoi-chann (salt and lime) and mam tom (shrimp paste sauce).
I hesitated on the first bite.
It was tricky for me, and I was a little surprised by my queasiness. Our cultural norms and taboos are strong. I told myself, it’s just like beef or pork. But as I’ve come to learn, knowing something intellectually is quite different from the actual emotional, visceral experience.
My first bite tasted awful.
But, it turns out, the bite I’d dipped in the pungent shrimp paste was liver. Not exactly a good start.
I opened my Bia Hanoi and took a generous gulp.
The shrimp paste, it turns out, was the thing I ended up having the most trouble with. Many Vietnamese, and most westerners, don’t care for the intense gray stuff, which is made from fermented shrimp and salt. The fishy odor wasn’t helping me be an adventurous eater, to say the least. I began to empathize with my daughters, forced to try bites of weird dishes that to their young palates taste and look positively icky.
Well, the second bite was better, but I wasn’t exactly enthralled with the dishes. The fatty cho hap was probably the best–a little smoky and tender and fairly good when dipped into salt, lime, and chilies (but as I’ve blogged before, a boiled shoe would taste good dipped in that stuff). The sausage was pretty good–chunky, with lots of garlic and lemongrass.
The stew was the most challenging.
It looked fairly close in consistency to a boeuf bourguignon I’d made the week before, but more gristly. I scooped it up onto the crackers and–well, down the hatch. When in Rome. Best not to ask what the little stringy things were in that dish.
So, the verdict? An duoc. It was edible. But nothing to write home about, as they say. I doubt I’d go back on my own, but if a Vietnamese friend invited me, I probably wouldn’t decline either. And if any future visitor wants to have a try, well, I guess I’ll take them…
Was it wrong of me? I suppose you’ll all have strong opinions on the matter. I don’t expect most of you would take up my invitation to give it a try. But I was glad I did. I stand by my point: if it’s okay to eat pigs and chickens and cows, why is it not okay to eat dogs? Is it because they’re our companions, that they’re more cognizant and emotionally aware and deserving to live? I suppose you could make that argument, but I’m not sure a cow or pig doesn’t also rise to that standard. It’s just that most Americans don’t live day-to-day with pigs or cows.
I’m a meat-eater, and that’s not a morally tidy thing. But I acknowledge it and wrestle with it and know what the costs are. I guess I agree with Anthony Bourdain that there is something magical and primal in the smell and taste of cooked meat that is a deep part of what makes us human. My rational mind may tell me: meat is probably not worth eating. But my emotional, reptilian-brain attachment to it is something I’m not willing to part with.
And I value diversity in my foods and my experiences. I’ll admit it: I’m a hedonist, and I’m interested in trying pleasures and experiences in my life. I agree with Epicurus: “Pleasure is the beginning and the end of living happily.”
Dog meat, however, I would not describe as a “pleasure.” But I’m glad I discovered that.
By the way, if you’re interested in the issues of meat-eating versus vegetarianism, I highly recommend a 20-minute audio discussion between Anthony Bourdain and Jonathan Safran Foer, which was recently recorded the CBC radio program “Q.”