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“What is this we’re eating?” I asked my Korean friend Jemin. I had just helped him edit a research paper for an international architecture conference, and dinner was his way of saying thanks. We were eating a thick stew of green onions, sesame leaves, shredded ginger, crushed red peppers, fermented soybean paste and a very dark, tender meat. It tasted great.
“It’s bokk-um,” he replied.
“Duh,” I said. Bokk-um is a general Korean word for pan-broiled food. “What kind of bokk-um?”
Jemin began to giggle. “Mung-mung tang.”
Any person with a basic understanding of Korean knows that tang means stew. However, only those who have spent time around Korean children know what mung-mung means. Having tutored my share of kids during my two-year teaching stint in Korea, I knew that mung-mung means “bow-wow.”
As in the sound a dog makes.
In terms of Middle American taboos, eating a dog ranks right up there with practicing polygamy, exploiting child labor and smoking crack. Even die-hard American beefeaters consider eating dog meat to be an unspeakable deviance. After all, dogs have personality, loyalty and charm. Cows, on the other hand, are ambivalent, dimwitted and bad at catching Frisbees.
In Korea, dog meat stew (known commonly as boshin-tang, or “health-enhancement stew”) is believed to be an energy-restoring health food, and many men swear by its power to increase sexual potency — a Korean folk version of Viagra, if you will.
Despite its allure, dog meat stew is technically illegal. The Korean government banned its sale and consumption just before the 1988 Seoul Olympics, in hopes of avoiding negative international publicity. While reference to the dish was erased from restaurant menus across Korea, the dish itself never disappeared from restaurant kitchens. Ten years after the official prohibition of dog meat in Korea, approximately 20,000 restaurants nationwide still serve dog meat, according to the South China Morning Post. Although the ban has been enforced in a handful of highly publicized instances over the years — perhaps most famously in 1992, when a ship carrying 13.9 tons of dog meat from El Salvador was turned away by customs officials in Pusan — no serious legal action has been incurred since 1996, when a man charged with selling $500,000 worth of dog meat to restaurants was acquitted on the grounds that his product was sanitary, edible and popular.
But the question remains: Why is eating dog meat so popular in Korea, while the very thought of such a practice provokes revulsion in the United States? I began asking this question almost as soon as I arrived in Korea, and the most common answer I received was that Koreans eat only ddong-gae (literally, “shit dogs”) — semiferal mutts that are not fed by caring owners, but survive on garbage and feces. In other words, Koreans consider pet dogs different from food dogs in the same way that Americans distinguish corydoras from canned tuna.
Even domestic dogs in Korea have never really been considered pets in the sentimentalized Lassie/Rin Tin Tin sense of the word. To this day, many older Koreans — raised on the ideal of duty to family — are as put off by the American love of dogs as Americans are put off by Koreans’ taste for dog meat. Why, they wonder, do Americans gladly spend hours teaching their dogs to do silly tricks, yet consider it an act of extreme generosity and sacrifice to go to the care home and chat with their grandmother once a week?
Historically, both Old World and New World cultures used dogs as a source of food when it became scarce. The Korean practice of eating dog meat is said to have originated in the Stone Age, when (as in Manchuria) dog meat was a staple during the cold winter months. As Korea developed into an agricultural country, dogs continued to be regarded more as barnyard animals than pets — and since dogs were much less useful in the rice fields than oxen, they were ultimately regarded as a handy source of meat. Wall paintings in a fourth-century Koguryo Kingdom tomb depict dogs being slaughtered along with pigs and sheep. The Sino-Korean character for “fair and proper” (yeon) literally translates into “as cooked dog meat is delicious.” Ancient Korean medical texts point out the dietary similarities between dogs and humans, and recommend dog meat to fortify the spirit, warm the body and aid recovery from illness.
Interestingly, these ancient texts make no mention of the virility-enhancing qualities of dog meat. And using dog meat stew as an aphrodisiac is generally considered a 20th-century fad. It’s especially popular during Sambok, a 30-day period on the lunar calendar when the summer heat is believed to deplete one’s sexual energy. During this time of year (usually July or August), back-alley boshin-tang restaurants in Korea are usually packed with loud groups of men. The macho, backslapping, joke-filled mood of such gatherings can be compared to that of American men visiting Hooters on payday.
It was under this guise of male bonding that Jemin tried to salvage the situation when he revealed to me that I was eating dog meat stew.
“Boshin-tang is a very useful food,” he said, striking a mock Superman pose. “All of your girlfriends will be very happy.”
“I doubt that,” I said. “In America I once had a girlfriend who insisted that dogs are more trustworthy than men.”
“That’s just evolution,” he said. “Trust is a trick that dogs play. They don’t want you to know how delicious they are.”
Jemin’s nonchalant attitude bothered me, but I wasn’t sure what to say. Since coming to Asia, I had been adventurous with food — I’d eaten whale, silkworm larvae and deer antlers — so I couldn’t exactly moralize over the ethics of eating dog meat stew. Instead, I decided to simply make Jemin understand the American side of the issue. Citing evidence ranging from drug-sniffing German shepherds to seeing-eye dogs to “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” I lectured him for 10 minutes on what sets dogs apart from livestock.
By the time Jemin admitted I had a point, I was on my second helping of boshin-tang.
Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.More Rolf Potts.
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