The Uncomfortable Truth Behind Medan's Dog Meat Trade
We track down the source of the city's most-controversial dish.
It's pretty easy to find dog meat for sale in the Indonesian city of Medan. Just walk down Jalan Jamin Ginting and listen for the sound of dogs barking. The street is known for the sale of dog meat, colloquially known as "B-1"—a term that stems from "biang," the Batak word for dog. I chose Warung Jhon, a small wooden restaurant with an open kitchen and a pungent smell of smoke and what I could only imagine was grilled dog meat.
Normintargian, the warung's owner, greeted me with a list of the dishes on the menu. There was dog soup, barbecued dog meat, and saksang, which is a kind of dog meat curry. The meat is always cooked with a heavy dose of herbs and spices that mask the gamey taste beneath a layer of ginger, white pepper, and lemongrass. But why, I asked, eat dog in the first place?
"Because it's delicious," Normintargian said.
Dog meat has been a staple of Batak cuisine for centuries, where it is commonly served in Indonesia's Christian-majority communities (the dish is part of Manado cuisine as well). Dog meat is seen as a meal that increases one's energy and stamina, as well as cures some illnesses. It's also a lot cheaper than beef or pork, which adds to the meat's popularity among non-Muslims living in North Sumatra.
But that doesn't mean dog meat isn't a controversial dish. Dogs are seen as unclean and therefore "haram" by most Indonesian Muslims—although plenty of Warung Jhon regulars told me that local Muslims still eat the dog soup for its alleged medicinal purposes.
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"I’ve driven many people here who were Muslim," said Abet, a driver with Grab. "I could tell because the men were wearing peci. I often drive them straight here from the local hospital so they can drink the soup when they are sick."
Then there are the animal rights groups who see the sale of dog meat as a cruel and unnecessary industry. The coalition Dog Meat Free Indonesia believes that only 7 percent of the country consumes dog meat, but this still translates to millions of dogs killed for their meat every single year. The campaign to stamp out the dog meat trade in Indonesia has attracted the support of celebrities like Ricky Gervais and Chelsea Islan.
I was on Jalan Jamin Ginting to get to the bottom of Medan's dog meat trade. I wanted to know where the meat came from. Was there some kind of dog farm in the countryside? Or were people eating, as some urban legends had it, stolen pets? Turns out the truth was somewhere in the middle.
All the dogs for sale at Warung Jhon were once someone's pet, explained Normintargian. But that doesn't mean her staff are out there stealing tail-wagging canines off the streets. Some of the dogs were sold through middle-men who offer pet owners money for their dogs. But others were sold directly to Normintargian's restaurant by the owners themselves. These are problem pets, she told me, the ones who prove to be too difficult, or too old, for their owners.
“The other day someone brought in their dog because it kept eating its owner’s shoes and they wanted to get rid of it," she said. "We also get a lot of German Shepherds. People buy them as guard dogs, but they can get very aggressive, so they sell them."
German Shepherds aren't ideal for eating, because their flesh is pretty tough, Normintargian told me. She prefers smaller, younger canines, the ones with sweeter and softer meat. The young pups are bought at Rp 40,000-a-kilogram ($2.95 USD) and butchered within a few days.
But shouldn't the shop wait a few days to make sure the dogs don't have rabies? The virus is endemic in Southeast Asia, where 96 percent of rabies cases stem from infected dogs, according to data released by the World Health Organization.
Normintargian told me that their staff inspects the dogs for disease and erratic behavior, but the demand for fresh meat is too high, and the supply too low to keep the creatures around for long.
"They are killed within a few days of arrival," she told me. "We have a very fast turnover rate."
I walked out to the restaurant's courtyard to see how the dogs were killed. Outside, I found six dogs of varying size contained in a cramped metal cage and a young Batak man named Fernando. The 23-year-old butcher was too shy to look me in the eye as we spoke. I wondered if he had it in him to repeatedly kill man's best friend for a living.
But Fernando told me that he grew up eating dog meat back in his village on the banks of Lake Toba. The restaurant already had enough meat for the day, so there was no need to kill another canine, but Fernando offered to walk me through the process—without killing one, of course.
First, he clubs the dog over the head with a large stick, knocking it unconscious, Fernando said. He then binds its legs and ties it to a stake in front of the cage in case it wakes up before he gets the chance to plunge a knife in its chest.
"We do this so that the dogs can’t fight back," he told me.
Fernando then aims his blade straight at the dog's heart and collects the blood to make sauce. The body is thrown over an open flame to scorch off its fur before he cuts the dog in pieces, separating meat from organs and bone.
I squatted down and peered into one of the cages. A dog rose and started to wag its tail, staring up at me with these large chocolate-brown eyes. I asked Fernando if he ever felt bad about killing so many dogs. He shrugged and said it was just his job.
Back inside, Normintargian was eager to show me the full menu. She laid out a plate of grilled dog meat, a plate of saksang curry with a side of blood sauce, and a bowl of dog meat soup. She put a glass of nira, a sweet drink made from palm sap, on the table as well.
The smell coming off the dishes was absolutely foul to someone who isn't used to eating dog meat. It smelled like a more pungent version of goat meat and looked a bit like char siu pork. The curry was mushy and filled with offal and throw-away cuts.
I stared at the meat for a while and decided that I couldn't eat it. Part of me wondered whether the dogs had any diseases before they were butchered. But the rest of me just couldn't wrap my head around eating an animal that only a few days ago was someone's pet.
Did Normintargian ever get attached to the dogs before they were killed? Did she ever feel sorry for eating an animal seen worldwide as the closest creature to man? She shook her head and then leaned in to quietly tell me a secret. Sometimes, she gives the dogs names, Normintargian told me. Two of the pups outside were actually named Andre and Sule.
Andre and Sule, like the celebrities, I asked.
"Of course," she said. "We always name them after celebrities."