A dog’s dinner

I had to admit that I had made a mistake.  I like to get out of my comfort zone and immerse myself in my surroundings, but I should have known my limits.  In the far north of the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia, I had allowed the host of my guest house to direct me to a restaurant serving one of the local specialities: man’s best friend.  As the waitress demanded my order I couldn’t stop myself from pointing to the shop-front display of dishes and asking her the only question on my mind: “How much is that doggie in the window?”

It turned out to be surprisingly - if not reassuringly - expensive, although it would still have been overpriced if they’d been giving it away.  If it makes any difference, and I’m not sure that it does, this was not a cuddly, doe-eyed creature.  All the dogs in Sulawesi were scabby mongrels.

The meat was extraordinarily dark and looked more like food for a dog than dog as food.  A piquant sauce gave it a respectability it hardly deserved.  And it was chewy, which was the worst thing about it because every mouthful just gave me longer to think about what it was that I was eating.  I say “every mouthful”, but I confess that I couldn’t manage more than one, and even that one struggled to stay down.  Meanwhile, my Swiss companions chewed away.  “I wouldn’t order it again”, said one, “but it’s not bad”.

Dog was only one of the Manado region’s exotic offerings.  An insalubrious hillside restaurant just outside town offered the full range.  The menu was an animal lover’s worst nightmare.  Dog was old hat by now so I thought I’d try some bat.  Bat turned out to be ridiculously expensive so I settled for a rat.  The pricing, it seemed, was based on the degree of difficulty involved in catching the dishes.  Bats only come out at night and fly high and fast; rats, on the other hand, appeared to be living in the kitchen.  One was soon trapped and minutes later it was served up to me: all skin and bones and another dark, spicy sauce to mask the taste.

Finding again that I couldn’t eat it, I called the waitress over to order some snake, which I thought I could manage.  My request was met with a look that suggested this was the local equivalent of ordering an omelette in a curry house.  When it arrived, I discovered that the old story is a myth: snake does not taste like chicken.  It’s rubbery, much slimier and way more fiddly.  If you want chicken, you had better order chicken.  Not that they would serve you anything quite so prosaic at this particular establishment.

Many people stumble across these exotic foods by mistake, especially where they have limited ability in the local language.  The commonly recited story is of pointing at an appetising dish on a neighbouring table and saying something along the lines of “I’ll have the same as him”.  I had no such excuse.

Worse still is the story, which I desperately hope is apocryphal, of a hapless tourist’s visit to the famous street market in Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, China.  The street is like a pet shop, except that the Chinese aren’t traditionally big on pets and many of the locals shop there for food.  The travellers’ urban myth goes like this.  A cat-loving tourist is dismayed to see a poor feline incarcerated in a tiny cage, destined for a Cantonese cooking pot.  He decides to buy the cat and liberate it.  With only very basic Chinese he manages to negotiate a price and secure the purchase.  The stall-holder, pleased with the deal, pulls the cat from the cage, snaps its neck and puts it in a bag for the distressed tourist.

If there’s any conclusion to be drawn from all this, it’s that distant cultures have different attitudes towards animals than we do.  I’ve tried to have some sympathy with this.  Why, so the question goes, should you not eat dog meat if you eat beef?  And after some traumatic research I have the answer.  The reason why we don’t eat dogs and rats is not because they are, respectively, cute or filthy.  It’s all a question of taste.  I may not know much about food but I do know what I don't like.

  1. (c)Nicholas White 1997