Dog soup is a rare and quickly aging delicacy in South Korea. (Photo courtesy of http://mmerong41.egloos.com/58453)
Walk past any food stand selling an unidentifiable mea and the joke is its probably dog. In Korea, it isn’t. Westernized views of minorities are filled with this perception: Koreans eat dogs and the Chinese eat dogs and cats (and snakes and monkey brains). Although the consumption of dog (among others things) does exist, the practice is not a norm in Korea.
In fact, in my own grassroots research, I would argue a higher percentage of Western expats living in Korea have eaten dog than the percentage of overall Koreans. Dog meat (개고기 수육) and dog soup (보신탕) is quickly fading out, if it hasn’t reached near non-existence. Aging generations–let’s say, arbitrarily, those born before 1970–have a tendency to go for boshin-tang in times of sickness or, as they quite literally call it, the dog days of summer. The soup has a well-being (양영탕) stigma that so many older Koreans love.
The basis for eating dogs does not have strong evidence of beginning in times of famine or during the Korean War. In fact, the existence and popularity of the more practical and more quickly prepared budae-jjigae (부대찌개), or “Army-base stew”, shows that the origins of eating dog was not in necessity for survival but in the archaic belief that dog meat is beneficial for good health and a long life. The soup generally works as a stamina during hot, post-monsoon days, similar to sam-gye-tang (삼계탕), an in-bone chicken soup with ginseng, or daeji-guk-bop (돼지국밥), a pork stew that is similar in look, but not in the essential ingredient.
The meat and soup is not cheap by Korean standards. Typical prices for meat or soup can go for between 15,000 and 30,000 won ($13-$22). But the profits have dropped since the 1980s and Korean modernization. Furthermore, since the beginning of the century, Korean pet ownership has taking off. Though previously the traditional Korean white breed of dog from Jinro region in the south has been a source of national pride, current trends of pet ownership have been on the rise. A small dog, a tea-cup Maltese, for example, can look a little too close to a bowl-sized plate of dog meat. (However, only one kind of dog is normally used for boshintang, a yeallow dog called noranke [노란개].)
But 2 million or more dogs are estimated to be eaten each year. Two former presidents, Lee Myung-bak and the late Roh Moo-hyun, were known to eat dog. Legally, serving dog is somewhere in a grey area in Korean law, a space between food processing and lawful livestock. The consumption itself is generally not frowned upon as much as the inhumane treatment and slaughter of the dogs in captivity.
From personal experience, I can say the meat has the texture of a roast beef. However, these restaurants are filled not with people looking for a roast beef-like stew, but elder Koreans looking for a health boost. (Koreans overall consume pork, chicken, beef, duck, and many kinds of seafood much more often than dog.) The elder generations are the last vestige of boshintang soup eaters, which means the ill-fate of boshintang restaurants is near.
Dog meat is not readily available at markets for home cooking. But as a younger Koreans replace the old, all signs point to dog meat consumption moving from a marginal practice to a thing of the past.