In case you Fork in the Road readers don’t Google-stalk me, you might not know that I wrote a book called Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris, which recounts the year I spent learning to cook in restaurants around the world. It came out last Wednesday. Yay! Buy a copy! Can’t be persuaded to shell out the $15 on Amazon just yet? Understandable, times are tough. Perhaps this sneak peek of one of the most unique dining experiences from my year abroad can change your mind. Behold my edible adventure of eating dog meat — yes, little Rover — in Vietnam.
Now, before you get all PETA activist on me, you should know that dog is actually a specialty in Vietnam, and I wanted to experience the local culture as much as possible, which meant getting out of my culinary comfort zone and eating like the Vietnamese.
Dog meat is thought to bring luck and prosperity, but only during the second half of the lunar month. Consuming dog during the first half is considered very unlucky; consequently, many dog-meat restaurants close during that time. Dog meat is more commonly eaten during the cold winter months because it is considered a “warming” food according to traditional food classification. However, I sampled it at Tran Muc, a famed dog restaurant just north of Hanoi, in the sweltering summer heat.
The most traditional way to sample dog in Vietnam is in a set of dishes known as cay to 7 mon, in which a whole dog is used and prepared seven different ways. We knew that would be too much food for the two of us, my friend Hung and I, so Hung ordered a trifecta: steamed dog, grilled dog, and dog stew. Yum!
Our waitress soon brought out a plate filled with lemongrass stalks, basil leaves, and a large-leafed Vietnamese herb called la mo that was grassy-tasting and covered in a light fuzz; a plate of cucumber spears with chile salt, sliced chile peppers, and lime wedges; a large sesame-studded rice cracker; and a small bowl of purple fermented shrimp sauce whose potent smell and taste are supposed to help mask dog meat’s strong flavor. The steamed dog pieces were placed before us; several slices of fatty, pinkish gray meat resembling boiled leather slumped atop one another on a small white plate. The olfactory mirrored the visual — the scent wafting through the air recalled wet cardboard in a slaughterhouse. My stomach clenched.
The grilled dog placed in front of us, however, looked more appetizing than the steamed version. The bite-sized chunks of meat were covered in a paste made from galangal and had been grilled on skewers until lightly charred. The dog stew closely resembled a vegetable-free beef stew and followed next, but Hung, a medical doctor, quickly inspected it and then dismissed it, claiming that it might not be fresh. But onward march!
Now, our table wasn’t so much a table as a piece of newspaper on the floor. As you can see, the restaurant is open-air, and you sit on the floor. (Note: don’t wear a skirt like I did.) I was one of the few women in the restaurant (dog meat is particularly prized for its virility-inducing properties).
Chopsticks in hand, I reached for the grilled dog. Hung instructed me to wrap it in herbs and dip it in the murky shrimp sauce. After a deep breath, I slowly nibbled the meat. It was chewy and fatty, with a strong animal taste like squab or venison, but not as succulent. The minced galangal and subtle charcoal flavor were pleasant enough, and the meat itself was reminiscent of beef — if you closed your eyes and didn’t think about it too much.
While Hung lapped up the meat, I nibbled on the cucumber spears, dipping them into the chile-flecked salt. Seeing that I wasn’t going for the steamed dog meat, he placed a piece in my bowl and smiled. I hesitantly wrapped it in herbs and told myself that it had to taste better than it looked. Yet as soon as I began to chew, my visceral reactions took over and my throat closed. All I wanted to do was gag, but somehow I swallowed.
I tried to force a smile as Hung watched my every move with gleeful anticipation. The steamed dog meat packed a primordial punch; it was strong and complex, but also extremely earthy and wild, like nothing I’d ever tasted. I can say with authority that steamed dog meat is an acquired taste, and one that I hadn’t acquired — nor was likely to.
“So, did you like dog dinner?” Hung asked when we were finished.
“It was interesting, although I’m not sure I’ll be eating dog again soon,” I said. Indeed, my Tran Muc dog dinner doesn’t figure into my top five most delicious meals. Or top 10 or 20 or 100. But hands down, it was my most unforgettable meal of all time.
Adapted from Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris (Grand Central Publishing, 2011).