El Santo in “The Terror of Balut”

“Well… at least I didn’t throw up.”

This thought crossed my mind as I looked out from a twenty-eighth story apartment into the skyline of Makati. Its towering lights reflected dimly on the murky Pasig River below. The city —- a suburb of Manila and also one of the most populous cities in the country —— is a curious but not uncommon mixing bowl of wealth and poverty.  The skyscrapers of financial titans, where young professionals in sharp suits can be seen flitting back and forth, and the tall billboards featuring attractive women selling everything from sauces to skin-lightening lotion cannot disguise the corrugated-roofed slums that line the polluted river.  It is in these neighborhoods full of narrow streets and open drainage ditches where the Metro Manila street food culture can be found.

It should go without saying that picking up street food is a game of chance.  Conditions are hardy ever sanitary.  Food poisoning is a reality.  Additionally, there are some foods that make you wonder if maybe someone went too far.

My sister-in-law had been listening to the commotion upstairs. She came down to the crowded room where there were more than a dozen people, some who were peeling off eggshells and tossing them in a bowl.

“Hey,” she said. “It sound like you were having a hard time. Have you had balut before?”

“Yes,” I said. Following up, then, on why I would have such a reaction, I told her, “Because a long time ago… I’d seen it.”

Taking capacity in my brain cavity —- alongside my age, my nationality, and the lyrics to “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” —- is a running tally of how many balut I have eaten in my lifetime. This was number four. Balut Number Three was consumed two decades prior.  The experience scarred me for life.

For those unfamiliar, a balut is a duck egg with the embryo still inside. The egg is boiled, which creates a broth that mingles the baby duck juices with the flavors from the egg yolk and the egg white. It is such an off-putting food that it was once a challenge to eat a balut on Fear Factor. Poor contestants who were ready to jump a 12-story cliff were brought to their knees and cursing an ambivalent god.

For certain balut enthusiasts, the ideal a balut in the early stages of development. It’s arguably more ethical, too.  In some countries, it is illegal to make balut that is over 18 days old. This is because that is the threshold when the embryo feels pain. I think that the notorious third balut I had was Well past that 18 day mark. In previous attempts I had been advised to tap open the egg, slurp down the fluid, and never, EVER look inside.

Well, in a moment that will haunt my nightmares, nothing was coming out and I took a peek through the murky abyss. What I saw was a little vague but discernible shapes of infant duck feet and what looked like feathers.

I swore off balut after that. That is until I decided upon myself to undertake a sort of Balut Quest.  My brother-in-law, who had grown up around the former US military base of Subic Bay, has been driven mad trying to find a balut from a street vendor.  “We’re eating balut tonight!” he’d say for nearly two weeks straight.

A little problem, though: few people in the Philippines eat balut anymore. Filipinos are well aware of its reputation as one of the most terrifying foods on the planet. While there remain diehards who are ride or die on balut, many are hesitant on the food. When asking where the balut vendor is, you are very likely to be greeted with a disgusted expression before you’re told, “I don’t really eat balut.”

I try not to be an ignorant traveler and try to give each food, no matter how strange, the benefit of the doubt. So I feel more than a little confident that this isn’t just a case of “foreign tourist is scared of the local food” scenario. When even the locals are a little put off, then you know you’re in good company.

Unrelated panel from Halina Filipina by Arnold Arre

This means, though, that finding a roadside balut vendor is challenging. My brother-in-law was first averted in Davao, where we were told that balut was not sold on All Saints Day. No city anywhere in the islands seemed to serve it either. Balut vendors may have converted over to selling bags of guava for all we could tell.

“Try near the Victory Liner,” a distant relation informed us, referring to the bus station. “I don’t really know though. I don’t eat balut.”

It made me wonder if this was a similar situation to lutefisk, where the home society had moved beyond but the expatriates clung to old traditions. Balut consumption has been going down in the Philippines partly because of its rep, and partly because it’s heavy associated as a “poor people food.” Balut is not hard to find in the Pacific Northwest, on the other hand. Heck, check out the English Wikipedia page and all the pictures are from Vancouver.

Fate intervened on my last day though. As it turned out, there was a vendor at the very last apartment we were staying at. So, on the very last day overseas, we were having a balut party. And they complained when I suggested karaoke instead. Fortunately I was assured that these eggs were only 17 days old… though I am not sure if this was a story told to placate international travelers.

One day before the embryos start to feel pain? Convenient.  Our vendor also provided some spicy sauce, poured lovingly into a plastic bag.

The proper way of eating is to crack open the big end of the egg. You take a spoon and ladle some spicy vinegar into the opening. You then drink the fluid inside. For many, this is the end of their Balut Quest. I was perfectly fine to end my adventure here, after conquering my nightmares from decades prior. You are no fear factor for me, balut! I’m not afraid anymore!

“No,” my brother-in-law said sternly. “YOU MUST EAT THE WHOLE THING.”

It’s quite possible that 100% of the terror of eating balut is purely psychological. We eat infants all the time after all. Young lamb, baby back ribs… I would not think two seconds about posting a picture of either on this site.

I though long and hard about whether or not I should post a picture of an opened balut here. Is it a step too far? In one sense, it’s just food. It’s a tiny piece of meat presented on an egg. Give it a frou-frou Asian fusion name and perhaps it would come to the same acceptance as raw fish or boiled snails.

On the other hand, it feels wicked to be eating a meat that never ever got to experience the basic rights to sunshine and fresh air. Also, it’s a legitimate Cronenbergian horror.

Do not click lest you succumb to terror that dare not speak its name

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David Lynch wishes he could have imagined something this terrifying. What scares me the most are the stripes of brown that wind around the yolk sack like ghost tentacles as drawn by Junji Ito. Those are veins. Immediately the mind imagines that the brown gelatinous lump is beating and the veins are tightening. I was only 70% sure I’m going to be able to hold my dinner down.  Our host, by the way (who is very much a world traveler and had been telling us that he was going to be in Vienna next week) assured me that the above was the “perfect balut,” so I am not exaggerating it for dramatic purposes.

This is roughly the time that El Santo went from “seasoned traveler” to “mewling toddler”. I may have cried. I could not physically put that unholy monstrosity in my mouth. It was, in fact, spoon fed to me… with my eyes tightly shut like a little kid forced to eat broccoli.

The flavor is not unlike the broth from a top ramen, which is to say it’s not unpleasant. It’s also not a very strong flavor. You don’t get much of a sense that you’re slurping down duck meat, which is why some balut enthusiasts may prefer older embryos. The texture, though… the combination of the yolk and the embryo is similar to the texture of a hard-boiled egg yolk. However, the egg white is thick and rubbery. Biting it is like biting into an eraser. For those of us who just want the experience over with, chewing the egg white keeps balut in your mouth for a good 15 seconds longer.

“I only eat the yolk,” said the person who had shoved the balut in my mouth. “I don’t like eating the other parts of it. It’s a little gross.”