This story was always going to be controversial. When I mentioned the idea to a colleague, she was utterly horrified and said if I went through with it we could no longer be friends.
"But you eat meat," I protested.
"Dogs are different!" she told me with concern.
"Are they though? I reckon most animals have the same capacity for suffering. You just like dogs better."
"You're f**ked!" she said.
Although many would agree that dogs are different (and that I am f**ked for wanting to try it), it's hard to argue that they're more important than all of the other animals that humans regularly eat. Dogs are cute, and it's probably fair to say they don't deserve to be killed and eaten -- but surely the same goes for cows, chickens, lambs, pigs and fish. My colleague was being selectively compassionate, I thought.
After a little more discussion, she said she'd go vegetarian if I promised not to eat dog. This sounded reasonable, so I agreed to it. Four days later, she crumpled before a fish burrito.
And so I found myself in Cambodia, wondering whether I really wanted to eat dog.
Peter, my friend and translator, says he likes dog meat, but only eats it once or twice a year. His family celebrates special occasions by spit roasting an entire dog over a barbecue. In Cambodia, it's customary to spit roast the dog for about three hours, then slice the animal into smaller cuts which are then grilled.
At Kong Vannak, a restaurant on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, I'm confronted with a barbecue covered with dog meat. Looking at it makes me feel a bit weird. The tail is recognisable amongst barbecued offal, bones and other cuts. It's red meat, but it looks a little bit darker than beef, more gamey, like kangaroo or elk. The dog's skull, already cooked, sits atop a glass cabinet until one of the cooks puts it on the chopping board and uses a cleaver to slice the meat off it.
Youeng, one of the owners of Kong Vannak, says the most desirable dogs are middle-aged and medium sized, weighing about 15 kg. "When it's small, the meat is not tough enough, and when it's old, it gets too tough," she says. Youeng buys the dog meat wholesale for US$3 per kilo, which means a whole dog costs her just under $50.
Peter orders for us and we sit down at a small table a couple of metres back from the street. At Kong Vannak, a small plate of dog meat costs US$1.25 and comes with a side salad and a fermented fish dipping sauce, called prahok.
To everyone at Kong Vannak, the cuisine is completely normal. It's like any other barbecue, just with a different variety of animal. Unsurprisingly, when I ask people about eating dog meat, nobody acknowledges that it is taboo in other parts of the world.
I realise that any reservations I held about eating 'man's best friend' are purely cultural. Hindus don't eat cows, Jews don't eat pigs and apparently secular Australians, such as myself, don't eat dogs. But here in Cambodia, eating dog meat appears as routine as eating battered fish and hot chips would be at home.
The meat tastes fairly normal too -- not dissimilar to beef, though slightly leaner and chewier. I eat the whole plate without fret or fuss. It's tasty enough, but a bit of an anticlimax really.
Before we leave, I ask Youeng if she keeps a dog as a pet. She just smiles and shakes her head. She must be aware that eating dog meat is strange and offensive to outsiders, but it's a normal part of her diet and culture. She says she eats dog meat every day.
I'm sure many people will criticise my decision to eat dog meat, and, in a way, that's why I did it. Most Westerners, my editor included, hold emotional attachments to domesticated dogs and regard them as companion animals. I respect that people have profound relationships with dogs, but it takes some sketchy reasoning to morally oppose eating dog while happily chowing down on other animals.
Jared Piazza, a lecturer in moral psychology at Lancaster University, has explained that dogs and pigs are similar in a range of different characteristics, including their social and emotional intelligence, their self-awareness, and their capacity to suffer. He says: "We love dogs, yet we eat pigs, and there are simply no good moral reasons for such hypocrisy."
For me, eating dog meat in Cambodia was a grotesque way of showcasing this hypocrisy. I was perplexed that while bacon is obviously on the menu, dog meat remains extremely taboo. But while researching this article, I was shocked at what else I discovered.
To put it simply: People in the Western world consume dog meat every day.
In Australia, euthanised dogs and cats, along with road-kill and other dead animals that are deemed unfit for human consumption, are reused or "rendered." Through this process of rendering, inedible meat is ground up into fatty proteins, such as lard or tallow, which are then used in a huge range of products.
Veterinarian Dr. Patty Khuly says: "Those generic, unspecified proteins and fats included in your pet's food? They may well, legally, include canine and feline bodies."
So, if you have a dog, there's a good chance you have fed it meat from other dogs.
Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals, explains it fairly pragmatically:
"Rendering... allows processing plants to transform useless dead dogs into productive members of the food chain. In America, millions of dogs and cats euthanised in animal shelters every year become the food for our food."
When Foer says "the food for our food", he means that rendered meat is often converted into protein pellets and fed to cattle -- which humans then eat. Essentially, dogs are fed to cows and cows are fed to us. So if you've eaten beef then, in a roundabout way, you've eaten dog.
And this isn't unique to America. Australia is the second biggest exporter of rendered meat in the world. We use rendered meat for pet food, cattle feed, soap, candles, paint and tyres. We even make biofuel out of it.
So, basically, we consume dog meat all the time, in myriad different ways.
Some may interpret this article as a justification for eating dogs. Others may take it as a cue to stop consuming animal products altogether. Ultimately, it's up to you to decide what you eat, dog meat included.
You can read more from Nat at Global Hobo.Suggest a correction