Balut. That much-loved, much-maligned Filipino delicacy: favorite of beer drinkers all over the country, degree zero for culinary nastiness (used as a stunt on TV’s Fear Factor, apparently), the dreaded food test for the Kano (and Filipino American, as my students tell me).
Say it: balut. Ba-lut. Your lips gently press together at the beginning, your tongue flicks quickly up towards your palate, your lips move as one in the shape of a narrow ooo, and ends with your tongue teasingly poking behind your teeth.
(This is, however, in contrast to how balut is sold in the Philippines, by ambulant vendors who yell in the streets, “Ba-luuuuuuuuuut!”)
But there is nothing sensual per se about balut; it is, after all, an aborted duck fetus. As opposed to, say, eating an ordinary chicken egg with yolk and all, the balut is already fertilized and ready to go, as it were, with an actual, healthy, living duck embryo (incubated up to 18 days in a hatchery). And this where, of course, the balut gets its notoriety: the duck really looks like a duck, eyes, pink little limbs, gray feathers, useless beak and all.
Duck embryo in the shell,
I pluck you out of the shell; —
Hold you here, beak and all, in my hand,
My fondest memories about balut had more to do with buying them. They were always sold late at night (my father would bring them home after playing mahjongg until midnight), but sometimes we would go out ourselves. In Los Banos they were sold by this gaunt, gray-haired woman who would squat by the side of the road. The balut would be swaddled in cloth, and nestled in an old wicker basket; the woman would carefully unwrap the rolled-up blanket that kept the eggs warm, give us a thimbleful of salt in a twist of recycled graphing paper, and count her money in the light of the candle anchored with melted wax on the pavement. (I remember these were windless, humid July nights.) We would then ride home, feeling the heat of the eggs in our laps.
Instructions for eating balut:
1. Boil water gently in a pot, and put the balut in it for a few minutes.
2. Untwist the salt and put it in a dish. (A dipping dish, the kind used for soy sauce or patis, works very well.)
3. Hold the balut upright and, with the underside of a spoon, make a crack at the top of the egg.
4. Chip away pieces of eggshell with your finger until you have a hole about the diameter of a finger. (This could be bigger, it depends.)
5. Sometimes you’ll see some kind of gauzy membrane. Pierce it.
6. You can peek inside the balut now and see broth. Is this albumen? (I always preferred to think of it as amniotic fluid.)
7. Tip the egg to your mouth and suck out the amniotic fluid.
8. Continue removing the eggshell. Depending on how you cracked it open, you may then see an undifferentiated mass of stuff that feels like slightly runny, soft-boiled egg in texture. Dip the stuff in the salt and eat it.
9. Or you may encounter a hard, spherical section that looks like a seed. Throw that away. (My godmother swears that it’s all calcium and good for you, but it’s tasteless and hard for me.)
10. Or you may finally get to the jackpot: the duck fetus. You may pick it up by the head — at which point the body unrolls from its fetal position and its little legs dangle — dip it into the salt, and pop it into your mouth.
11. Wash down with a cold bottle of San Miguel beer. (I think I may have been drinking it with milk when I was in elementary school — now that sounds disgusting. Balut and milk…)
Answers to frequently asked questions:
1. Yes, you can feel the feathers on your tongue.
2. As a former (white) professor discovered (he was being administered the balut test), entering a pitch-black closet so you don’t have to see it makes no difference. You can still smell the faint, slightly gamey, deliciously menstrual aroma. (Also see #1 above.)
3. No, the duck’s eyes are closed.
4. Of course it’s dead.
5. No, I have never been able to buy good balut in the United States, and I won’t try to. One time my schoolmate Tim (can’t remember his last name, but he lived in Mountain Province once and was studying Heidegger and Japan for his dissertation), Jenny Franco (I wonder where she is now), and I drove to Queens to Roosevelt Avenue to buy Filipino food. I bought a six-pack of San Mig and two balut eggs, which were simply horrible — they were all pinkish and looked under-incubated, and they tasted rotten.
6. No, you can’t pop the whole thing in your mouth. To begin with, there’s too much, unless you have a big mouth. You have to separate the balut into its component parts to appreciate it, and that requires reverent contemplation of the duckling, forever asleep.
7. Yes, it tastes great and I miss it.