This article originally appeared on VICE Mexico
It's summer in South Korea and it's very hot. I'm on a train on my way from Seoul to Moran Market in Seongnam, which is about 40 minutes south-east of Seoul. You can buy a lot of things there, but Moran Market is mostly famous for being Korea's largest dog bazaar. It might be a long train ride in this heat, but if I want to see how dog meat is being sold and cooked, this is where I need to be.
It's said that Koreans first started eating their canine buddies during the Three Kingdoms of Korea, over 2000 years ago. But when Seoul was chosen as the host city for the 1988 Summer Olympics, the South Korean government banned the consumption of dog meat in an attempt to reinforce a modern and worldly image of the country. The ban, which came into effect in 1984, was never really enforced though – South Koreans kept on slaughtering dogs and turning them into soups and stews. The FIFA World Cup, which came to Korea and Japan in 2002 shed light on the practise again, and FIFA spoke out against cruelty to dogs in Korea.
Today, less than a third of Koreans have tried dog meat, and even fewer people eat it regularly but a considerable number of restaurants in the country still have it on the menu. In Seoul it's fairly hard to find, but there are dog abattoirs on the outskirts of the capital – at markets or farms. Young people in particular don't appreciate the idea of munching on a pet; on my trip, I asked a local couple of twenty-somethings where I might be able to eat dog, and they both responded with obvious disgust and irritation.
Still, everybody knows you can buy dog meat at Moran Market – the crowded, open-air bazaar, which according to the Seoul Times makes for 30 percent of the almost two million dogs that are killed for consumption every year in South Korea.
In fact, all kinds of live animals are for sale at Moran Market – the streets are rammed with chickens, goats, ducks or rabbits, all huddled together in cages. The image is cruel, unsanitary and depressing. Despite all those other animals and the fact that you can buy ginseng by the ton however, the whole place smells like dogs. I try to follow the smell and get to its source, in the back of the market, in a bit that leads out onto the car park.
If you can't stomach seeing animals suffer, you need to really stay away from this entire section of the market. In the last row of Moran Market, about 20 adjoining shops offer dogs in different forms: alive or dead, cut in pieces, whole or frozen. Buying an entire dog for consumption here can cost up to $250 (or £200). I see about 15 dogs crammed into one tiny cage. They can't move, they don't bark and most of them are emaciated.
There are different breeds of dogs for sale, but most them are yellow-ish and fox-like – Koreans call them noo-rung-yee and they're most commonly bred for their meat. The farms where they're bred aren't regulated, because dog meat isn't regulated under Korean law. It's estimated there are between 15,000 and 20,000 dog farms in South Korea, none of which are ever inspected by authorities. Many dogs on Moran Market come from those farms.
As I walk past the first stalls of butchers, I can hear a dog's wailing getting louder. I see a man roughly pulling the crying dog out of a van – the dog's collar is attached to a stick. He drags the dog out of the van with the stick and forces the animal through a door at the back of the shop, which he slams shut. The whimpering soon stops. Officially, it is illegal for dogs to be slaughtered at the market, but it's obviously unclear how strongly those rules are being upheld.
The process of slaughtering dogs in Korea is as gruesome as you might have come to expect from the above. They're generally electrocuted or killed with a blow to the head, which according to the butchers, makes for more flavoursome meat. Once it's dead, the dog is thrown in boiling water or blowtorched to undo it of its fur.
The dog meat at the market is kept in small freezers in front of the stalls, in bits and pieces. I see ribs, a tail, a torso, legs and other cuts that I don't recognise. I know I brought this on myself – I came down here to see how it all happens, and to even try out some dog meat. But it's still heart-wrenching to witness all that suffering.
These shops aren't illegal, although the atmosphere around them suggests they are. The customer service isn't great to say the least; shopkeepers are secretive and defensive. They're weary of cameras and every stall has a sign noting that it's forbidden to take photographs. The sellers are obviously very aware that their line of work isn't very popular in the rest of the world.
The last of the shops I pass by has a restaurant attached to it. It doesn't look all that hygienic, but there are people inside eating and they seem to be doing alright. The woman who serves me is very friendly and helpful. There's not a word on the menu that's not Korean, but with hand gestures that indicate chopsticks and by pointing to the dog meat outside she understands that I'd like to order the house special – dog soup.
The other customers are all older – eating dog is more of an elderly Korean thing. The waitress reappears with a bottle of soju – Korean rice liqueur – and a bottle of water. She then brings over some steamed rice and three banchan – small dishes that accompany Korean meals. There's kimchi, two enormous chillies with onion and garlic on another small plate, and the last one is fermented radish. So far so good – so far no dog.
Then the main dish arrives – the dog soup, which is locally known as gaejangguk. It's served very hot on a stone plate and doesn't look like anything special at first glance. I feel the eyes of the other customers fixed on me, as I take my first spoonful. The meat looks a bit like beef, but tasting it, I realise it's much more tender than beef or pork usually is.
My brain tries to escape reality and I suddenly think for a second that I'm eating lamb with the consistency of beef. Nice try, brain. I'm eating dog out of sheer curiosity, but I have to admit that it doesn't taste as bad as I imagined. The meat has been cooked with chamomile and dandelion and a lot of Korean spices. The soup comes with a sauce called deul-gge, made of perilla seeds, sesame oil and red chilli paste. It seems to bring out more flavour, but I also have the sneaking suspicion that it's served to lessen the overpowering smell of the meat.
Suddenly a new surprise emerges from the soup – it's a whiter meat, brighter and fattier than the rest. I'm guessing it's the dog's belly, and the waitress' slaps on her tummy confirming it. It's tasty but pretty slimy.
This dish is also called bosintang, which literally means "invigorating soup". In Korea, the soup is traditionally said to stimulate virility and fertility in men.
This soup is one of the most popular dishes containing dog meat in South Korea, but it's certainly not the only one. You can have dog meat steamed with vegetables and spices, or you could even consume gaesoju – a medical tonic made from dog, ginger, chestnut and jujube.
The waitress seems very happy with the fact that a foreigner just ate what so many people in the country want to ban. The other customers in her restaurant also watch me with curiosity and approval. Having the soup itself wasn't nearly as unpleasant as the horrid spectacle and the smell outside, but mentally I find it hard to separate the two.
As I leave, I can't help but want to take some pictures of this part of the market. The waitress is standing in the entrance of her shop saying goodbye, when I decide to quickly take a few. My move doesn't go unnoticed – the other shopkeepers come out onto the aisle immediately. One of them is holding a metal pipe and, rattling a dog cage with it – he doesn't seem afraid to use the thing on me. He furiously shouts something I don't understand, but the message is clear. I decide to make a run for it, and get as far away as possible from the market, the dogs and their vendors. I don't think I will be coming back any time soon.