Little Tiger: Vietnam’s Taste For Cat Meat

In most countries, eating cat meat is a taboo, but for others, it’s a developed taste which often has its social origins in times of extreme hunger. The practice is officially banned in Vietnam but the delicacy turns up on restaurant menus anyway.

It is a delicacy, an expensive one. According to the Agence France-Press, a cat can sell for as much as $70, depending on its size and how the meat was prepared. That’s a lot of money for a poverty-stricken nation and, according to Vietnamese writer Pham Hoang Mien, not something that everyone does, but yet the practice does exist and it seems to be gaining in popularity.

Known as “little tiger”, cat meat can be purchased as a snack with a glass of beer in a number of Hanoi eateries. It is also eaten in small villages because cats (and dogs) are seldom seen as pets but instead as work animals that can be slaughtered in times of need. To the villager who eats cat meat, it’s no different than killing and preparing a goat or a cow that has, previously, provided milk or pulled a plow. Cats catch rats and mice and other vermin that can destroy stored foodstuffs, but could be used as the main dish to feed visiting family members.

In cities, like Hanoi, however, the Westernized idea of keeping animals as pets — particularly cats and dogs — has caught on in recent decades and pet owners must keep their pets locked up or risk having them stolen and sold for meat. Even owners who use their felines for pest control take the chance of losing animals with the rising demand for cat meat and the lucrative job of cat-snatching.

The meat is most often purchased from breeders and traders but there are few regulations for tracking the source of cat meat. It’s unusual to see cats roaming freely in the streets of Vietnamese cities and coming across feral felines is rare. Sometimes, the meat comes from cats smuggled in bulk across national borders from other Asian countries like Thailand and Laos. Sometimes, it’s the tabby down the road.

In preparing cat meat, the animal is killed and then the hair is removed before the body is cut apart and cooked into a number of recipes.

Le Ngoc Thien, a Vietnamese chef in Hanoi, explained the popularity of cat meat to the news agency Agence France-Press.

“Eating cat meat is better than eating dog as the meat is more sweet, more tender than a dog.”

Little tiger is typically eaten at the start of a lunar month and is considered a way to erase bad luck and increase male virility. Even cat owners will eat cat meat, as long as it’s not their own pet in the soup pot.

In some places, the practice of eating cat meat comes from a darker time, when starvation made it necessary for food sources to change. People ate cats, dogs, rats, insects, and even each other. Changes in society and culture over the years, however, has Westernized the common attitude about what is a pet and what is food, but the tradition persists.

It’s not purely a Vietnamese delicacy, either. There are several places in the world where cat meat is eaten.

In some southeastern provinces of China, cat is considered to be a good, warming food in the winter. Other provinces consider it unacceptable. It’s estimated that around four million cats are eaten a year in China, a number that is rising. But with the increase of people keeping cats as pets, there have been protests against the eating of cat meat and restaurants have been shut down for putting cat on the menu.

In Japan, the practice of eating cats largely ended with the 19th century.

In Korea, cat meat is not usually eaten, but a broth is made from cat that is used as a remedy for nerve pain and arthritis.

In South America, cat cooking demonstrations are held every year during the festival of Saint Efigenia in a town named La Quebrada. It can be eaten as a substitute in recipes that call for guinea pig. In Brazil, there are even rumors of cat barbecue being a food that can be purchased on the streets in Rio de Janeiro.

In some of Switzerland’s rural areas, private consumption of cat meat is legal and there are traditional recipes for puppies and kittens alike.

In Australia, feral cats are eaten by some of the indigenous aborigines. In certain places of Cameroon, eating cats in a special ceremony is considered to bring good luck.

Even in nations where eating cat meat is considered a horrible taboo, in line with human cannibalism, the attitude can change in times of famine and war. In Central European countries, cats were killed and eaten during and between the two world wars, and were called “roof rabbits.”

In Vietnam, the demand for cat meat grows and pet owners grow worried for the animals they consider as part of their family or a necessary component to business life, protecting kitchens and grain storage. But, as of yet, Americans won’t knowingly eat cat meat. Could this change in the future? Will we see cat (and dog) traders and breeders marketing cat meat in grocery stores which serve an international community?

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