Chowing down on thit cho

If you’ve been reading this column for any length of time, you know that it would sooner or later come to this. To that seemingly dark side of Vietnamese gastronomy, wherein people commit acts so shocking that to many a western wayfarer they seem to constitute a sin without a name. Yes, it’s time to talk about thit cho (eating dog meat). Also known as cay to or thit cay nam dinh.

Down at the Pham you can take a short walk to Cong Quynh Street. At number 189 you’ll find the Sieu Thi Hanoi (Hanoi Supermarket). On the left you’ll see a short lane where there are a handful of dog meat shops. At the end of each lunar month diners come in such great numbers that motorcycles and cars clog the byways. Some Vietnamese like to invite their foreign friends to taste this dish; I think it is because they like to watch them squirm.

Although many say dinner dogs are killed in an inhumane fashion, I often wonder why dogs would be slaughtered differently from other food animals. Any self-respecting butcher can tell you that inhumane methods of slaughter, regardless of species, tends to spoil or toughen the meat.

Now let it be known that Vietnamese people do keep dogs as pets, and they love them dearly. And they are never eaten by the owners. Well, perhaps in times of famine. At least seven different dishes of dog meat are served in restaurants specialising in what is sometimes called ‘deer of the doorstep’. In the world of Yin and Yang, dog meat is believed to give warmth, therefore the more traditional eaters like to sit on a mat close to the cool ground in large and well-aired rooms. Getting together with friends to eat dog meat, quaff rice wine, and tell stories until everyone becomes a bit tipsy is what a local gourmand of my acquaintance describes as, “an inexpressible pleasure”.

How is Fido prepared? Just like any other meat: roasted, fried, barbecued, boiled in a soup. Dog as a dish generally begins several days before the end of its days. It may be selected from a captive pack or it may be captured on the street, as is often the fate of common curs and runaways. (They could also be stolen pets. For this reason owners are very protective of their house dogs, and never let them go a’ roaming alone.)

During their last days, the dogs sometimes are fed well, to make the meat more tender and tasty. After the hound is killed, the body is drawn, the ears and tail cut off, and the hair singed away. By now it looks very much like a roast piglet. But look to the shorter snout. See those canine choppers. Listen for people asking, “How much is that doggy in the window?” You’ll know it’s no swine. It is then trundled to the market where it might be sold whole to a restaurant or chopped into quarters for private consumption.

What the dog tastes like depends on it’s pre-dinner diet, as well as on the diner’s attitude. If you have no qualms about feeding on Fido, he tastes a bit like pork with some beefy undertones; the flesh is firm, yet not tough. But if you have ever loved a dog as a pet and a faithful companion, you may find him tasting of bitter betrayal. I have even known people to suffer hallucinations when essaying this dark dish. They report seeing their dear doggies before them at the table, scowling their disapproval, minus their ears and tails. Beware.


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