In the dingy and steamy kitchen of a restaurant in Jakarta, chef Michael Kenzo slowly stirs a big pan of dark coloured meat mixed with chilli and spices, sweat streaming down his face.
“This is dog meat,” he volunteers, without being asked. “Every day we cook about 20 kilograms of it.”
The dish is called rica-rica, a delicacy originating from Minahasa in North Sulawesi, an Indonesian province which is famous for exotic cuisine that includes animals such as bat, monkey and snake.
Reliable data on the dog meat trade in Indonesia are scarce, making it hard to establish consumption trends, experts say.
But some animal rights activists and restaurant owners say there is a growing appetite for dog meat among members of ethnic groups who do not traditionally eat dog meat.
On the resort island of Bali alone, between 60,000 and 70,000 dogs are slaughtered and eaten a year, despite lingering concerns about the spread of rabies following an outbreak of the disease there a few years ago, according to the Bali Animal Welfare Association.
“We do know that tens of millions of dogs continue to be slaughtered each year throughout Asia to supply the demand for dog meat,” said Lola Webber, co-founder of Change for Animals Foundation.
“Having said that … dog meat is increasingly unpopular amongst younger generations, especially where pet ownership is on the rise,” she says.
At Tinoor Permai, the restaurant in Central Jakarta where Kenzo works, Andrew Morlando enjoys lunch with his fellow churchgoers after a Sunday church service. Bibles are stacked on the table.
“In my family, eating dog meat is a tradition,” Morlando explains. “I’ve eaten dog meat since I was a child.”
His friends, who also eat dog and pork, nod their heads in agreement.
“It tastes good, just like other meat, and it keeps my blood warm,” says the 37-year-old Morlando, whose family comes from Manado, a city in the pre-dominantly Christian North Sulawesi province.
It’s not hard to find dog meat in Jakarta and its consumption is legal, even though about 85 per cent of Indonesia’s 250 million people are Muslim.
Eating dog is frowned upon among Muslims, many of whom consider the animal as impure. But even so, more Muslims are eating dog meat, Kenzo believes.
“I know a haji who regularly buys dog meat from here,” Kenzo says, referring to a Muslim who has made an obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca.
“Many people believe dog meat has health properties such as enhancing virility, curing asthma and skin problems,” he says.
But experts say most purported health benefits are myths and there are health risks associated with eating dog meat too, which include diarrhoea caused by the cholera bacterium.
“Dogs are not classified as livestock and therefore the trade is
unregulated,” said Gustav Mueller, a vet in Jakarta.
“Dogs intended to be eaten are never subjected to safety inspections by authorities, before and after being slaughtered, unlike cows, chickens and pigs,” he adds.
Doni Herdaru Tona, the founder of the Animal Defenders Indonesia, argues that dogs sold for their meat were often stolen and treated cruelly.
“Sellers often bludgeoned the dogs in the head to make them
unconscious, roast them alive to remove their hair and then cut them into pieces,” he says.
“They believe such treatment makes the meat taste better.”
Animal rights campaigner Webber says: “The cruelty of the dog meat trade in Indonesia shocks me even after years of working on the anti-dog meat campaigns in South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines.”
“Dog meat consumption has strong links with custom, medicine, and a part of dietary tradition, making it a difficult habit to break,” she says.
She adds that dog meat is often “considered a cheap source of protein, cheaper than other types of meat.”
At Tinoor Permai, a portion of dog rica-rica costs 80,000 rupiah (about 6 dollars), a hefty price tag for many Indonesians.
The meat must be cooked for several hours to make it digestible.
Except for the head and the innards, everything is edible, Kenzo says, and it tastes better if it’s reheated and eaten the next day.
The chef says that, personally, he is a dog lover and does not eat dog meat at all. He just tastes the sauce and examines the meat to know if it’s ready to be served.
“I don’t have the heart to eat it,” he says. “I’m doing this because it’s a job.”