When I was a little kid, I ate my boogers. I’d find the nastiest, juiciest one – the kind with a black and crusty end attached to a neon green slime tail that slid down the length of the sinuses from the frontal lobe – and pop it into my mouth without question. The booger would sit along the centerfold of my tongue like a slug in the mud, not with any sort of kick or intense flavor, but with a mild, matter-of-fact texture that seemed to say, “welp, here I am. Are you proud of yourself?” Now, I tell this story not to create any sort of Schadenfreude through your squeamishness, but rather to share my own gastronomic provenance and continued (though culturally matured) inclinations. That is to say, I’m used to eating weird shit.
Thus begins what I hope will become a recurring feature on this blog: a culinary tour of the world’s weirdest and most stomach turning dishes. My guts are a little ahead of my pen on that front, so we’ve got a little backlog to get through. To be brief: deep fried crickets are crunchy and salty, far better tasting than you’d expect, and the only issues are the legs that get stuck in your teeth like little toothpicks that chirp with every chew. Time it right and you could very well masticate your way into calling out a bad joke.
But what I really want to focus on in this first post is a Filipino specialty that I recently got to try: balut.
Balut is really nothing more than a boiled duck egg. A little salt, a little vinegar, and it’s practically Western fare. The kicker is that the egg’s been fertilized – there’s a little duck embryo cuddled up to the hard-boiled yolk. How far along the embryo is depends on when it’s purchased, since the egg is cooked immediately before it’s sold. All of them, however, are old enough to have the little bones and beaks and the eyes that stare down your gullet like a philosopher contemplating the Abyss itself. When I first heard about balut, it was thrown into a pantheon of disgusting foods with the likes of Hákarl (Icelandic rotting shark meat) and Copi Luwak (civet shit coffee).
People love eating eggs. People love eating duck. And yet, when you offer them the best of both worlds they find it “revolting” and “bordering on immoral.”
It was Nardo who first convinced me to try it. Nardo was the hired driver taking me to a networking meeting in Subic, a wiry man of 57 with yellow half-teeth and a babbling style of speech that ran circles around itself. He was insane, though still a pretty good driver. But it was my casual mention of balut that really set him off. Westerners never appreciate balut, he said (in roughly twenty times as many words – all his speech must be diluted through the filter of sanity and syntax to be really understood on the first go around). But when Nardo was young like me, he said, he would eat 10 pieces of balut, go home, and fuck his girlfriend for hours. It makes your dick hard like horse! Now that he’s old, he can only eat 2-3 pieces at a time (the cholesterol’s bad for your heart, you see), but it still makes his dick hard like horse!
I don’t want to say that it was the idea of duck-fetus-as-super-Viagra that convinced me to try it. But that’s not a phrase that can be thrown out into the world without sparking at least a modicum of curiosity.
I finally got the opportunity in Boracay. A lone purveyor of snacks walked along the empty Puka Beach, a wicker basket swinging lackadaisically against his shins with every step. I almost didn’t notice him. I had become so accustomed to the prositutionary hissing of the vendors on the larger White Beach that I assumed he was another tourist. But Carly recognized the saunter of a salesman and jumped excitedly from her beach towel, pulling me over to the man. He looked genuinely surprised to have a customer, especially on the empty beach. But a sale’s a sale. He dropped his wicker basket in the sand and the games began.
Inside the wicker basket was a Styrofoam pad covered in a dirty blue cloth. And on top of the cloth, stacked like discordant puzzle pieces, were the eggs. Dozens of them. Steam shot out of the box in a quick puff once the lid was lifted before slowing to a waft as it calibrated to the cooler atmosphere. The eggs clicked together as their weight shifted the sand, altering the level and causing them to rotate like the well-greased parts of a future contraption far beyond my understanding. A Hypercube of niche cuisine.
Balut was 30 pesos. Judging by the faces of my friends and spectators, the real price would be psychological in nature. I handed the man some coins and reached into the basket, hovering over several eggs as though a certain one would denote me as the Yangsi of the Dalai Lama, before finally selecting my prize. The egg was smooth and hot from its former steamy prison, scalding the tips of my fingers so that I had to pass it back and forth lazily as I contemplated its contents.
To eat balut, you gently crack a hole into the more tapered end of the egg, sucking out the juice before peeling off the rest of the shell. I’m fairly certain that’s what the man was explaining to me in Tagalog as I smashed the egg against my head. I intended for it to crack, but I underestimated the bizarre process the egg goes through after fertilization in which the calcite shell is wholly replaced by a layer of titanium. I was too busy focusing on the sudden pain spreading through my forehead to listen to the sound of the egg bouncing off unscathed, but I assume it was more of a hollow knock than I’d ever care to admit.
The vendor graciously took the egg from me and rapped it against a bottle, spreading spiderweb lines across surface before handing it back to me to peel. The shell was stubborn, coming off in millimeter flecks, but eventually it succumbed and revealed the monstrosity within.
My embryo was relatively unformed, and much of the half-shell was occupied by a hardened white block not unlike a normal cooked egg. But the yolk had clear signs of life. Exploratory black veins wove their way through the nutritious yellow ball, pumping a supply line to the little brown lump hugging it in a puddle of broth. I tried not to pick out too much of the balut’s features, but it was like glancing at a rainbow and vowing not to take in its colors: the expected qualities jump out more readily than not. And so in that first reveal, I saw my lunch for what it was. A little beak floated in plain sight, moving by what I could only hope was the power of tremors in unsteady hands. Its wings were small, tucked into its sides, but needle feathers already protruded against the surface tension of the juice like a two day old pudding skin.
I consider myself pro-choice, but if I wasn’t hungry while holding that little fetus in my hands, I may not have stayed that way.
Traditionally, balut is eaten with a pinch of salt and a squirt of vinegar. I unleashed a deluge on my meal before finishing it off with a sodium chloride hailstorm. By now, the excitement of the opportunity was beginning to thin, the videos dragging on beyond what anybody would watch on YouTube, and there was nothing left to do but pop it into my mouth. And so, with far more pomp and circumstance than eating a snack requires, I did just that.
In the split second between when the salt and vinegar hit my tongue and when the balut followed suite, I found a sudden respect for the subtleties of a potato chip and the delicate balance it provided between two flavors I could only surmise were at war. My tongue curled involuntarily, beaten into instant submission by the acid and the mineral. The smell of vinegar flooded my mouth and shot out of my nostrils, saturating them for what would be minutes after I swallowed. When the duck fetus bounced off my tongue a fraction of a second later, I imagined non-diegetic music swelling as a hero entered the arena, ready to save my taste buds from the onslaught they were facing. I was ready to throw it a parade all the way down my esophagus.
The duck’s flavor was mild, as its cavalric charge against the salt and vinegar was hardly enough to entirely mask them. Instead, it was the texture that caught me. I was reminded again of potato chips, novelty ones shaped like a ducks endoskeleton rapidly becoming an exoskeleton rapidly becoming bonemeal. The crunch wasn’t loud enough to reach outside my cheeks but it rattled in my head with every chew. The yolk was a familiar and welcome friend, an eye in the storm that was my taste buds. The veins that snaked through it like a fungal infection evaporated against the force that was my tongue, and soon it too combined with the salt, vinegar, and duck. The flavor profile was beginning to calm into something actually enjoyable.
But the albumen. Oh God, the albumen. That block of boiled whites that sat on the far side of the egg, so reassuringly familiar, turned out to be a texture traitor that nearly ruined the experience. I bit it with my front teeth first, expecting it to be like the eggs I’ve eaten at home. Instead, the power allocated to my jaws was only enough to sink my teeth a centimeter into the block of what I now surmised was ballistic gelatin. My open mouth was covered by a veneer of white like a cartoon not yet colored in. I bit down harder, severing the block into two equally chewy pieces. Eventually I swallowed, taking most of the duck, yolk, and vinegar with it, leaving only a salty white ball to chew on for so long that it wasn’t even funny anymore by the end of it.
By the time I swallowed the last bit, the group that had gathered were anxiously awaiting the verdict.
And I had to tell them: it really wasn’t bad. I would need to try it again with less salt and vinegar, and without the block of albumen (which I soon found out wasn’t supposed to be eaten anyway). After that, I would go on to order a third one, simply because I was hungry. Several others eventually tried as well, and had a similar reaction, though none would go for thirds as I had.
The trick with eating nasty things is to get over the cultural perceptions of what is actually nasty. In America, we have no issue eating ground up pig feet and guts, stuffing them in intestines, slapping them on a bun, and calling them the perfect baseball food. Beyond the cognitive idea of what it was I was eating, balut is an incredible enjoyable food. It’s savory, salty, and beyond the albumen, it has a fantastic and rich texture. The little bones aren’t formed enough to present an issue.
I may not have gotten a raging four hour erection from it like Nardo claimed I would, but all in all, I had to say, it’s all it was quacked up to be.