Medan, Indonesia – For civil servant Silas Sihombing, the reasons for eating dog meat could not be much simpler.
“Today I eat dog because I’m hungry,” Sihombing told Al Jazeera between mouthfuls of grilled dog meat at the Lau Dimbo Simalem restaurant in Medan, North Sumatra.
“And look, it makes me sweat. The dog will do it, the meat makes you feel warm.”
Dog meat restaurants can be found all over Medan, where the indigenous Batak people are known for their taste for the protein.
About 7 percent of Indonesians are estimated to eat dog meat, according to Dog Meat Free Indonesia, a group that campaigns against the dog meat trade.
Although 87 percent of Indonesia’s 270 million people are Muslim and view dog products as haram, or forbidden, in the same way as pork, about 9 percent of the population is Christian.
Dog meat is most often eaten in predominantly Christian parts of the country, such as North Sumatra, North Sulawesi and East Nusa Tenggara, where only 9 percent of the population is Muslim.
While animal rights groups protest the trade on the grounds that it promotes cruelty and poses public health risks such as rabies outbreaks, many Indonesians see eating dog meat as no different to eating chicken or beef and resent the suggestion that it should be banned.
Dicky Senda, a writer and food activist based in Mollo, East Nusa Tenggara, said the dog meat trade has boomed in the province in recent years, as evidenced by a mushrooming of stalls selling canines prepared with aromatic spice mixes.
“According to our research, Mollo people did not traditionally eat dogs,” Senda told Al Jazeera.
“Dogs are important animals in Mollo culture that are considered friends and relatives. Therefore, a dog paw print is a common motif in the weaving of the Mollo people. As a farming and hunting society, dogs are considered helpful animals.
“I don’t know when it started exactly, but now it has become more and more popular to eat dogs.”
The popularity of dog restaurants in East Nusa Tenggara has grown to the point where dog meat traders have struggled with supply and demand, Senda said.
This in turn has led to a trend of unscrupulous scouts poisoning dogs on the streets with food laced with potassium, which renders the animals unconscious but does not affect the meat.
“I’ve lost five or six dogs in the last few years that way,” Senda said.
As a result of such practices, which have been reported across the country, Dog Meat Free Indonesia has for years lobbied the government to ban dog meat, and a number of local authorities have made the sale of dog meat illegal in their vicinity.
Last year, a dog meat trader in Central Java became the first person to be prosecuted for his role in the trade. The trader was sentenced to 10 months in prison and fined $10,000 after more than 70 dogs were found packed in a truck for transport to dog meat cafes and restaurants.
On July 6, a letter signed by Medan’s mayor, Bobby Nasution, stating that the sale or trade of dog meat was prohibited was made public.
After an outcry, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office clarified that the letter did not ban the consumption of dog meat, but was only a “suggestion”.
Back in Medan, Sihombing, who has eaten dog since he was a child, cannot see any reason to ban the meat, which he considers delicious, not least because it usually lacks fat.
According to the dog connoisseur, the butt of the animal is the tasty part.
“You can’t kill tigers or elephants because they’re endangered and it’s hard to breed more of them, but there are a lot of dogs. When they give birth, they usually have big litters of puppies,” he said.
“What is the legal reason why you should not be allowed to kill and eat a dog if you can kill and eat other animals?”
Maria Tarigan, the owner of Lau Dimbo Simalem, said that while not all Batak people eat dog, many favor the meat for its supposed medicinal purposes, which include unproven claims that it can cure disease.
“Dog meat is supposed to be good for typhoid and dengue, and it’s even good if you have COVID,” Tarigan said. “I am proof of that. I was sick with COVID and then I drank dog soup and it made me better.”
At the height of the pandemic, the restaurant did a roaring trade in dog soup, Tarigan said, as customers flocked there and ordered bags of it for sick relatives convalescing in hospitals.
But being the owner of a dog meat restaurant also comes with its own specific challenges.
Tarigan said her application to register as a business with GoFood, a popular Indonesian online food delivery app, was rejected, although she was able to list her restaurant on GoShop, the shopping section of the app, as a compromise.
Tarigan said she suspects she was unable to register because her restaurant only serves dog meat dishes and nothing else.
“We have 20 agents that we get our dogs from,” she said. “They call me and tell me when they have dogs in stock. We collect our dogs from different places. If a dog has puppies, the owners can sell the puppies they don’t want to us.”
Tarigan said her restaurant typically kills three or four dogs per day to keep up with demand, and slaughters 21 dogs each week.
“If I had a dog and something happened to it, of course I would cry, especially if it had been with me every day and wagging its tail when I came home,” Tarigan said.
“If it was by my side all day long, of course I’d be attached to it, but really, what’s the difference with eating another animal?”