Balut. The Egg of Darkness. Pinoy-Pinay. Panorama City, CA.
Pinoy-Pinay. Panorama City, CA.
(WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS GRAPHIC PHOTOS OF DUCK FETUS)
If you cannot bear the silence and the darkness, do not go there; if you dislike black night and yawning chasms, never make them your profession. If you fear the sound of water hurrying through crevices toward unknown and mysterious destinations, do not consider it. Seek out the sunshine. It is a simple prescription. Avoid the darkness.
- Loren Eiseley from the book The Night Country
In the Philippines there are supernatural creatures infamous in the country’s folklore that can put a crippling chill in the spine of grown men by the mere mention of their name. On nights when the moon is high and the weather balmy and the air thick and wet, and when the residents of small villages leave their windows and doors wide open to escape the oppressive heat that smothers the Malay Archipelago, this is when the feared aswang are said to appear. The aswang live among the general human population and are not easily identified. They can take the form of women by day and werewolves by night. These are the merciless and murderous shapeshifters that hunt small children and the frail elderly. They may also take the form of a bloodsucking female vampire who seduce and kill. Or they can resemble something Westerners would describe as zombies or the undead on an eternal search for human flesh with a special fondness for liver. An aswang is also able to cast spells in order to subdue the victim then use her wickedly long, serpentine tongue to penetrate the skin and to feed off of the blood. As with many of the aswang’s Western counterparts, they were once human but became possessed by evil spirits and turned into creatures of the night. There are a few ways to turn aswang but it is rumored that one way is to eat balut.
There is a delicacy infamous in Filipino culture that can put a crippling chill in the spine of grown men almost as quickly as talk of aswang. That delicacy is the notorious balut. Balut is a popular Filipino street snack and is essentially a duck egg with a fetus inside, typically between seventeen to twenty days in gestation. In the Philippines balut is so popular that it is equivalent to what the hot dog is in the U.S. There are balut vendors who push around carts full of fetal treats and bark their wares in a sing-song chant of “baluuuut, baluuuut!” Balut is also a popular aphrodisiac for men. But even with the good vibes and positive spin surrounding balut, the stigma attached to eating it overshadows all the warm and fuzzy aspects of this very Deep End Dining dish.
Balut is the culinary heart of darkness. If you eat it, you have reservations about doing so. If you know about it, you have strong opinions regarding it. Ask for it in a restaurant and the clerk will visibly react. Devour it at a table with others who aren’t, and you’re guaranteed to dine solo. Explain balut to the uninitiated and be prepared for your audience to run away from you as quickly as possible while seeking sanctuary in something comforting like a Ding Dong. I know all this because I’ve had these things happen to me whenever balut is present, physically or conversationally. I have struggled and continue to struggle with eating balut. Superman has his kryptonite and I have balut. It is probably one of the (if not THE) exotic foods I fear most. In fact, I have been putting off reviewing balut for almost a year now for this reason. Why am I so freaked out by balut? Well, how much time do you have? For starters, balut will haunt you after you ingest it. It stays with you forever. I’m not suggesting that I believe in the ghost stories about being possessed after eating balut. I’m speaking more to the traumatic imprinting that might occur when you consume this culturally complex cuisine. Even when I try hard not to think about what I’m eating, somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind I’m aware that I’m eating a fetus, life that is yet to be, something unborn, taboo food. Also, this awareness has nothing to do with political-religious beliefs. It is simply the unappealing idea of eating a fetus.
I did not grow up eating balut. My first exposure to balut was my sophomore year in college when a Filipina friend of mine let me sample one of these eccentric eggs. She invited me to her home where she was to prepare it. Back in those days I was only slightly less daring about trying new and strange foods than compared to today. Also, I prided myself on being the “been there, ate that” guy. No exotic food could shock me. I’ve seen it all…or so I thought. My friend returned from the kitchen, grinning from ear to ear rather nefariously. She explained to me in plain language that balut is a boiled duck’s egg with a fetus inside. She continued on to illustrate that when I chew on the egg I may come across feathers, the duck's bill, bones and other bonus treats that aren’t included in your standard hard-boiled egg. Intellectually I understood what she was telling me. Realistically I could not have been more unprepared. There on the table was the first balut I’d ever seen and it had my name on it. But before I was to breach the balut’s shell, my friend instructed me on the basics of eating balut. First, I had to tap the pointy tip of the egg’s shell and make an opening large enough only for the broth to trickle into my mouth. Next, I needed to remove the shell and season the egg with salt. Lastly, I had to decide whether to wolf down the balut in just two bites or less, so as not to visually encounter the fetus, or to nibble on the egg and eat it section by section, being extra cozy with the partially formed duck. Lesson over.
So I went ahead and tapped the tip of the egg, created a tiny hole and took a quick swig of the soup. It was nice. Light and subtly sweet. The next thing that happened is a lot like what happens when you crank the handle of a jack in the box. You know something is going to pop out and you know it is going to startle you, but just because something is predictable doesn’t make it less shocking. It came time to open the balut. I peeled off a sizeable swath of shell. Suddenly and without any warning the fetus was exposed. In my hand, clear as crystal, was part of a duck fetus imbedded in the whites with a random feather jutting out. The blood drained from my face, my knees buckled and my breath quickened. I dropped the balut and told my friend there was no way I could eat any part of that gruesome egg. My friend’s eyes widened and brightened. I think I even spied a string of saliva dangling from an incisor. She grabbed the balut and said, “That just means more for me.” She then ferociously devoured it as if it was the most delicious thing she’d ever eaten in her entire life. She seemed a little intense when she ate the balut and it was worrisome to me, however there was no Hannibal Lecter styled flourish at the end, just a dainty belch.
That happened over fifteen years ago.
I’m older now. Less idealistic. More cynical. Maybe more callous. I don’t know. All I know is I have a score to settle. Balut beat me once and I wasn’t going to let it happen again. I could do this. Who cares if it’s a little baby duck that will never see a glistening pond or swim with a paddling of other baby ducks. I mean, really, what’s there to be afraid of? It’s not alive like Korean “live tentacles”. It’s not potentially poisonous like Japanese fugu. And I don’t believe in those silly ghost stories about being possessed by female vampires after eating balut. The worst thing about it is that it looks kinda gross. But so does a chunk of blue cheese. The fear is all in my mind. Bring. It. On.
This was easier said than done, however. Balut is readily available in Filipino grocery stores but much harder to get at Filipino restaurants, and I wanted to eat it at a restaurant. Pinoy-Pinay in Panorama City, California is one of the few restaurants that occasionally serves balut depending on whether or not the balut guy delivers a basket that day. When I showed up, it was there. I suppose it was destiny. The servers behind the counter at this turo-turo or “point-point restaurant” were suspicious of me as I went through the buffet line and only asked for the balut and nothing else. As soon as the balut hit my tray, I grabbed a corner booth, tried to blend in and started to unwrap the foil that encased the balut. I chipped a chunk of the shell’s top off and took a drink of the broth just like the first time. Although, this time around I couldn’t help but ponder the idea of whether this liquid was really a broth or closer to amniotic fluid. A provocative yet unappetizing thought, perhaps. Regardless, the broth slash amniotic fluid was faintly nectarous and pleasant. After sipping the very life force out of the balut and delaying as long as possible the inevitable ingesting of the fetus, I began removing the shell patch by patch until the balut was completely exposed. In front of me in all its ghastly splendor was something that resembled a teleportation gone horribly wrong. In just about any science-fiction show there is a small chance that when a person is teleported something could go awry and when the person is finally reassembled on the other side he could end up with his insides on the outside. Vile, I know, but this is what my balut reminded me of. The albumen or whites was covered by a sprawl of blood vessels, deeply etched all over the egg like red tribal markings. In another spot was a knot of unidentifiable nerves that looked vital. Over here was something resembling fibrous tissue of some sort. The whole shebang was coated in a slimy membrane that shimmered in the light. This was worse than I remembered and definitely a very bad beginning.
I decided that I would do this in a big way and really face-off with my food. Which meant I would eat the balut bit by bit and expose the fetus and then eat the fetus without any barrier between it and me. My palms began to sweat as I deliberately took the egg apart piece by piece. Every time a chunk of egg was removed it was like the jack in the box. I wanted to stop but I was morbidly curious and could not. The next chunk of albumen came off. And the next. Then the next…
Round and round the cobbler's bench
The monkey chased the weasel,
The monkey thought 'twas all in fun
Pop! Goes the weasel!
Like a jolt there it was. The fetus: head, eyes, bill, little wings. No feathers, thank God. The sight of it threw me back into my seat. No matter how much I thought I was prepared for the balut, I still couldn’t handle looking at it. It turned my stomach. My throat constricted. My body was doing everything it could to dissuade me from putting that thing into my mouth. This fetus was a mad scientist’s experiment. It was an H.R. Giger creation. It was a bad acid trip. This fetus was many things but the one thing it certainly wasn’t was something I wanted to eat. But I had no choice really. Here I am. There it is. Here goes nothing. I took a deep breath, shut my eyes and did it quickly. (Sound advice for lots of things in life you don’t want to do.) I went right for the head and upper torso just like Ozzy Osborne used to do. Then I braced myself and waited for what I thought would be the unavoidable and unnerving crunch of tiny bones and the stab of a the bill. Miraculously and inexplicably, there was none of that, only the gentle sinking of teeth into egg.
I dodged the balut bullet.
Suddenly this monstrosity of a meal didn’t seem so daunting anymore. Now I could actually focus on the taste and not the terror. And, you know, it kind of tastes good. It tastes, appropriately enough, like duck. It also tastes like duck liver. I was very relieved. But I was also disappointed. How could a food inspire so much fear, controversy and ghost stories and ultimately taste common, banal, even boring? How was this possible? And how very anticlimactic.
Regardless of this relatively benign experience, I am still skittish of balut. I simply can’t look at it. The sight of the fetus disgusts me like nothing else. I snicker at people who can’t eat fish with the head still attached or a whole roast pig or a Chinese roast duck. Balut really is not all that different from those dishes. But at the same time it is different. Maybe what bothers me is the baby thing. I’m uncertain because I do enjoy baby octopus. Maybe it’s the vulnerable nature of the fetus. This could be part of the reason. Or maybe it’s the sickening sight of a partially formed creature? I prefer my food fully constructed and a little older. Would I ever try balut again? Well, there is another traditional approach to eating balut that I forgot to mention. It involves drinking a shot of liquor after every bite of egg. So if there’s a bottle of Jack next to that sack of balut, you can count me in as a definite maybe.