HANOI, VIETNAM—The practice of eating dog meat has alternately puzzled and appalled many Westerners, launching essays on ethics and graphic exposés on the dog-meat industry in Southeast Asia. China, Korea, and Vietnam are centers of a centuries-old culinary tradition that is shunned in many other parts of the world, with Vietnam in particular singled out as the beating heart of the custom. But visitors seeking dog meat in Hanoi are more likely to find gia cay, or “fake dog,” which consists of pig feet stewed in an aromatic broth of turmeric, galangal (a root similar to ginger), shrimp paste, and fermented rice. And the reason why sheds light on the complex history of eating dog in the country—and the process by which culinary taboos emerge.

While the popularity of dog meat is declining in China and South Korea as pet ownership increases along with rising incomes, the dilemma of dog meat—a protein-rich food source—is arguably clearest in Vietnam. Today, more than 5 million dogs are killed for meat every year in the country, according to the Asia Canine Protection Alliance. Yet dog meat has never been universally popular here. And though historical records on Vietnamese cuisine are scant, the available sources suggest that gia cay may have emerged as a dog-meat substitute almost as soon as dog meat itself was introduced in northern Vietnam from China centuries ago.

“Dog meat is common in the countryside, but not really in Hanoi,” Duyen Phan, the head chef at the Hanoi Cooking Centre, told me, noting that dog meat remains most popular in Vietnam’s north, which borders China. In addition, “the north was historically poorer than the south food-wise,” Sonny Le, a Vietnamese-American marketing communications instructor who blogs about Vietnamese food and culture, said via email. “Stories of starvation during the [World War II-era] Japanese occupation of Hanoi [involved] having to eat the skinny family dogs.” Although many rural villagers now roast dogs for special occasions, the meals Le described were not “celebratory feasts, but more out of necessity, because dogs were used for hunting and guarding as well.”

But despite later tales of dog as a meal of desperation, 19th-century accounts from the French missionary Pierre-Jaques Lemounier de la Bissachère record that dog was considered a luxury in northern Vietnam. The culinary historian Erica J. Peters, author of Appetites and Aspirations in Vietnam: Food and Drink in the Nineteenth Century, noted an account of his in which he observed that unlike Europeans, who are “nauseated by the idea” of eating dog, the Vietnamese he encountered were “exempt from prejudices about food.” Though by his account they ate mountain rats, horses, monkeys, elephants, and tigers in addition to dog, “dog meat is considered the most delicious and is the most expensive.”

Further south, however, another writer noted that diners did have some of the culinary prejudices de la Bissachère had found absent in the north. In his 1925 work Le Tonkin Pittoresque, the Vietnamese official Michel My wrote that in his native southern Vietnam, “if someone wants to indulge in this caprice of eating dog meat, they hide as if they were committing a bad deed. They only invite their closest friends to this sort of banquet, which is always held in the countryside, far from other people.”

When Vietnam was divided in 1954 and many northerners moved to the south, they brought their eating habits with them. Dog restaurants cropped up in the Mekong Delta, where Le grew up; he recalled his father eating dog meat at drinking parties thrown by village leaders from the north. But many locals there viewed the practice with distaste, to such an extent that the phrase “northerners eat dog” has, in Le’s words, “a put-down connotation.”

In Hanoi today, it’s clear that even many of those who enjoy the meat have some doubts. “Dog is one of the best choices for drinking out. It’s great with beer and vodka, a rich source of protein, and cheap for the amount of meat you get,” Minh Pham, 27, told me. But he added that he “feels bad” about eating it ever since returning from university in Australia. Other young Vietnamese are challenging the practice through boycotts and criticism on social media. Nguyen Hang, who is in her 30s, told me recently that she and her friends refuse to eat dog.

A restaurant serving gia cay in Hanoi (Elisabeth Rosen)

“Many young people don’t eat dog because they think it’s uncivilized—especially in cities, where we have a lot of options that are tastier than dog. They’re also influenced by Western media,” Nguyen said. Other reasons to avoid dog meat have nothing to do with Western cultural taboos. At a sidewalk restaurant in Hanoi’s Hai Ba Trung District this month, Nguyen Anh Tuan, a construction manager, explained to me that it was considered unlucky in Buddhist tradition to eat dog during the first 10 days of the lunar month. “But true Buddhism is in the heart, not the mouth,” he added with a grin. “If someone invites me for dog meat, I’ll eat it.”

And, like in South Korea and China, as Vietnamese incomes have risen in the past few decades, more urban residents have started keeping dogs as pets. “[People] used to raise dogs to guard the house, and when they needed the meat, they ate it,” explained a retired Hanoian man who didn’t want to be quoted by name. “Now they keep dog as pets, imported from China, Japan, and other countries. One pet dog might cost hundreds of millions of dong [100 million dong is $4,677].”

There are no statistics on dog ownership in Vietnam. But pet hospitals, hotels, and boutiques have cropped up around the capital in recent years, and dogs clad in Christmas sweaters or riding on motorbikes behind their owners are now a common sight in downtown Hanoi. Nguyen Thi Le Huong, the manager of Happy Pet Clinic, which opened in 2013, said via email that as the number of pet owners has increased, people have focused more on “giving a happy life” to their animals.

“They pay attention to giving them good food and treats, using grooming services, making some network for the pets to meet and play,” Nguyen said. “Economic conditions are improved so people have money to spend on their pets, and minds are changing about pets’ position. They consider dogs and cats like friends, not family guards.”

As a result of all these factors, the number of dog-meat restaurants in Hanoi has declined over the past 10 years, according to Tracey Lister, who runs the Hanoi Cooking Centre. But as the taste for eating real dog wanes, Hanoians continue to enjoy gia cay.

Serving gia cay in Hanoi (Elisabeth
Rosen)

Judging by one of the few descriptions of the dish’s origins that Peters has been able to find, gia cay may have served as a substitute for dog meat from the very beginning. The culinary historian pointed to the 1934 work The Industry of Marrying Europeans by the northern Vietnamese author Vu Trong Phung, in which gia cay is consumed during an “informal, unofficial wedding ceremony.” In a footnote, the translator of the 2006 English edition explains that dog meat was commonly eaten up north: “Sometimes, when there was none available, people would try using another type of meat and spices (usually pork and galangal) to imitate the flavor of dog meat (giả cầy). For the dog-meat connoisseur, giả cầy was a bad substitute for the real thing.” Tuan, the construction manager, guessed that gia cay had probably been around “since before there were chopsticks.” The curry has since become popular in its own right. Food writer Huyen Tran told me the pork substitute is “easier to eat” than dog, a heavy meat with a very pronounced flavor.

Behind a row of plastic tables, Ngo Hong Nga, who owns the sidewalk restaurant I visited in Hanoi earlier this month, spooned gia cay into bowls, garnishing them with snippets of green onion and Vietnamese coriander. Since she opened the eatery 23 years ago, her flavorful curry has earned a reputation among locals as one of the city’s best. While Ngo enjoys real dog from time to time, she made clear that unlike gia cay, dog meat is only an occasional indulgence. “Dog meat smells too strong. We can’t eat it every day,” she said.

Meanwhile, one of Ngo’s patrons, dog owner Thu Linh, enjoyed a bowl of gia cay.

“I can’t eat dog because I think about my puppy’s face,” she explained. “So I eat this.”