I never considered myself squeamish. I’ll try anything once. Such bravery, however, is not always a blessing. Case in point: balut. For the uninformed or those who have never watched Fear Factor on television, balut is a Filipino delicacy of the most profane nature. Balut is a duck egg. What’s wrong with that, you ask? After all, it probably tastes no different than a chick’s or a quail’s, right? Not this egg. Balut is NOT an embryo, it’s already a fetus. What that means is balut is so far gone from being just an egg that it’s only waiting for the traffic light to turn green before it hatches.
Yet again protecting the name of the guilty, Bob, my friend from Manila, told me that if I were to truly immerse myself in Philippine culture, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to eat balut. And as I said, I never considered myself squeamish so I naively agreed.
While on our way to the northern part of Luzon, our bus stopped at, well, a bus stop. Bob steered me to a balut vendor purchasing one egg. He watched my every expression with a sadistic glee as he peeled away the thin shell. Now, I have a confession to make: I always thought that balut was some inside joke told to foreigners because they were too dumb to know any better. I refused to believe it was actually real. I mean, seriously. No one would dare eat a duck’s fetus, right? Right? What kind of twisted, demented people would eat a helpless, not to mention raw, fetus!
With a final evil grin he actually ate Chicken Little’s cousin in front of me. No Virginia there is no Santa. I did what any red-blooded American would do, with sick fascination I took pictures.
Then, much to my horror, he wasn’t done. He bought another one and, just as I was squirming in disgust and disbelief, he handed me the warm egg. My jaw dropped. What did he think he was doing handing me an aborted chick?
As if reading my mind, he said in a taunting manner, “your turn.”
Looking around nervously for any excuse, any avenue of escape, he reminded me of my promise apparently reading my fear and dread clearly on my face. Damn those expressive eyes! I need to buy some sunglasses!
With a shaking hand I took the egg. He tried to reassure me that I’d be fine. “After all,” he added, “I got you a young one, only 16 days old.” A clarification for the balut ignorant: Balut is sold as either 16 or 18 day-old. The older the egg, the more formed the fetus is.
Now, how was I supposed to do this again? The following section is not for the faint of heart. If you were crushed when Bambi’s mom was shot, turn away. If you have strong animal rights beliefs, please walk away right now for I intend to discuss in detail how to eat a balut. (As I write this, my hands shake and tremble with the memory of my dreadful sin. And as a tear gently rolls down my cheek, I’m ashamed to admit that I’m not a PETA member anymore.)
Bob told me to crack the sharper end of the egg lightly. I didn’t even know eggs had a sharp end. I was instructed to make a hole just big enough to suck the juice off the egg. Juice?! With a mocking laugh, he egged (pun intended) me on. I took a swig quickly so I couldn’t think about what it was that I was actually drinking. Ok, not really as I failed miserably and was ready to gag right then. Ugh!
Then he told me to peel the top half of the shell off. I reluctantly complied. There was this yellow stuff which I assume was the yoke andÃ¢Â?Â¦ Oh. My. God. I saw something that will haunt me for many a night. Curled up in a ball was a black thing covered in blue feathers. I could make out the eyes and the bill and part of the wing. It was definitely a duck and definitely dead. If this was a 16-day old chick, I don’t want to see what the 18-day old looks like. Ever in this lifetime or the next.
With accusing eyes I glared at Bob as I knew pleading would never work. My ire was rewarded with a satisfied grin and chirpy sounds, taunting me. I long to cram the balut down his throat, however that would not be a fitting burial for my poor little dead duck fetus. Still, whatever he was doing, it was working. The more he taunted me the more I wanted to prove to him I could do it. He sprinkled some rock salt on my balut and told me there were two ways to eat it. I could either take it bit by bit or swallow everything all at once and chew like mad. I decided for the latter option as I wanted my torture to be done already.
With closed eyes and hands madly shaking, I put the contents of the egg into my mouth.
I chewed and immediately regretted it.
Soft duck bones crackled between my teeth. Flesh was squished inside my mouth. I tasted featherÃ¢Â?Â¦ I swallowed. It’s just too horrible for words! I held my head up to keep everything I ate since two weeks prior from escaping through my mouth. Tears involuntarily rolled down my cheeks. I didn’t know whether to laugh hysterically or cry. I was in mortified shock. Veganism never looked so good, as at that moment.
I felt Bob pat me on the back as he handed me a can of Coca-cola. “Drink up,” he said. With eyes still closed, I took the can and drank half of it. When I opened my eyes, I felt like I just survived a terrible hazing. Bob gave me a warm, proud smile like I was a kid who drove his first car. Then he bowled me over with a huge bear hug, causing a scene I might add. Gee, thanks. Can I please go gargle with disinfectant now?
So what lesson have we learned from eating the great balut of the Philippines? Nothing except perhaps that it’s not always a good thing to be brave or curious about other cultures. Sometimes, when it comes to duck fetus, it’s better to not know and just say no.