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January 24, 2019

STEPHANY ZOO: Do Chinese people really eat snakes and dogs?

Snake dish
Snake dish

When I take a taxi to a Chinese restaurant, the first question my driver asks is, “Do you eat dogs and snakes?” I never quite know how to answer. The short answer is yes, some Chinese do eat dogs and snakes. Do I personally eat dogs and snakes? Yes and no. I don’t eat dog because I don’t like the texture, but I have eaten snake, though not frequently.

However, when Chinese do decide to eat either of these animals, we don’t go and catch them. We buy them from a butcher, or eat them at a restaurant. We’re not stealing people’s pets, and we’re not running around the bush trying to trap snakes. At worst, every once in a while a mangy pet might get mistaken for a street dog and cooked.

There are a lot of rumours that all the snakes and dogs have disappeared along the SGR. But I don't know if you’ve noticed that most of those Chinese men working on the SGR are not very athletic, so could you really imagine then running around Nairobi National Park trying to catch snakes and dogs?

I’ve only had dog once, and I probably only took one bite, which was gamey. In most modern cities like Shanghai and Beijing, its super rare to see dog on the menu. In fact, when I lived in Shanghai a restaurant in a trendy part of town that offered dog stew caused such an uproar among young Chinese that they had to take it off the menu.

Eating dog is more common in cold cities in the North. The one exception is the Yulin Dog Meat Festival, held in a pretty rural town of southern Guangxi Province. This festival is usually viewed as a tourist trap and very backward by urbanites throughout China.

The practice of eating dog is dying out as pet ownership rises, as both younger and older generations love their fluffy friends. The China Pet Products Association reported that there are 50 million registered dogs in the country, with pet ownership rising at a fast 15 per cent.

Snake is a more common dish than dog across China. I’ve eaten large boas that have been deep fried, but they’re often quite sinewy and the bones are difficult to pick out. I’ve also had smaller snakes that are cooked in medicinal soups, which made the broth very savoury.

In traditional Chinese medicine, internal body temperature affects health greatly. Food therapy is the way to correct imbalances. There are “cooling” foods like pears, tofu, and shellfish and “warming” foods such as snake, dog, beef and grapes. Snake is known to be a particularly warming food, and often prescribed to people who have insufficient ‘heat’. “Warming” foods are also thought to be particularly good for men.

In southern China, very skilled snake butchers are revered and known, such as Mak Sifu (Sifu is a title of respect meaning master) in Hong Kong. In Guangdong Province, they’ve been eating snake for more than 2,000 years.

It’s not like we see a dog and want to catch it and eat. Even people who enjoy eating them do not react that way. They react as you would on seeing a chicken or cow.

Even within the same species, there’s a big difference between food animals and pet animals. Another good example is fish — some people keep beautiful, tropical fish as pets in expensive tanks or beautiful carp in ponds. Those people still eat fish that they buy from the supermarket.

I would argue it not any more inhumane to eat snake or dog, granted they were raised for that purpose, than it is to eat goats, pigs, or cows. The way they are killed and prepared for dishes are identical.

The French eat snails, Mexicans eat larvae, and the Scots eat sheep’s stomach. Different cultures eat different things, and no one is forcing you to eat it or stealing your pets to devour them.

And trust me — I grew up eating weirder things — duck’s tongue, ‘stinky’ tofu, and chicken feet. Maybe I’ll tell my next taxi driver that I’m on my way to eat duck’s tongue.

The writer is the Head of Marketing at BitPesa

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