Balut, A Taste Worth Acquiring
Fussy with food
As a kid I was a very fussy eater. I hated fat and would labour away to see that every last shred was removed from any meat. I hated turnips, cabbage, turnips and vinegar. I shunned spaghetti because it resembled worms and would gag when swallowing it.
Growing up in the Middle East in Kuwait as I was... there were certain things I got used to. All cauliflowers were covered in black fly. My mother convinced me they were okay and I ate them. It was the same thing with maggots in flour...ALL flour had them.
Cheese. I could never get used to cheese. I hated it and only ever ate it when I was starving or out of politeness. I tried though, I really made an effort to like cheese. When in my early twenties one of my girfriends worked as a model and as I joined her on her assignments there was always wine and cheese. I have tried them all. I daresay more different varieties of cheese have passed my lips than is good for any man.
Boarding school was a turning point. Eat what you are given or starve. Somehow I found a way partially round that one. It was possible to 'trade' food if you knew the right people. I also became a dab hand at catching wild trout in local streams and became an expert in cooking trout sandwiches. I also had a couple of illegal (within the school) businesses which gave me a little cash for other foods. I don't recollected ever being given an egg at school...but I managed to eat one every week. Along the school journey I developed a real liking for drinking cold baked beans straight from the can. I still like them like that.
In the early seventies I went to work in Al Ain in Abu Dhabi. I had no money for months. I was wholly reliant on others for food. I had to eat what they ate or starve. I think this must have been the second turning point. New foods were brought into my diet almost daily and much to my surprise I found I liked them.
A change for the better
Today I will eat practically anything and will try everything at least twice. Why twice? Well perhaps it wasn't prepared properly the first time.
Prepared? Well not all of it is of course as I have eaten living things as well. Bee grubs are gone in a crunch but live shrimps require a bit more mouth action. They jump around in your mouth just like popping candy.
I must have eaten at least two dozen species of cooked insects. I am none too keen on Giant Water Beetles but Ants and their larvae are very tasty. Locusts are fine providing you remove the hind legs, though you can use those as a toothpick. Crickets make a lovely bar snack until you get a musty one. I like chickens feet though they take a bit of work to eat.
Giant Water Beetles - Ready to Eat
Offal is not awful. It is delicious and I can't think of a bit of an animal I have not consumed. There is a joke that British sausages are manufactured from 'bread, cows lips and ars*h*les'. I love sausages. I did have an unfortunate run in with tripe soup in Turkey but since then have found I do like tripe if it is cooked properly.
Birds Nest Soup? Just the description "made up of bird spit" would be enough to put many people off. It is too tasty to miss.
Sharks Fin? Now this brings in a whole new angle. I would never intentionally eat anything from an animal that had been caused undue suffering. Most shark species will almost undoubtedly become extinct within the next ten years due to barbaric 'finning' and overfishing. I will admit though to eating it once though as a guest of honour at a banquet in Northern China. I'm not proud of it, in fact I am slightly guilt wracked, but it would have been impolite to refuse.
I would never eat dog in Korea because of cruel slaughter methods but I have almost undoubtedly but unknowingly eaten it elsewhere.
I have eaten Alligator and Crocodile. I have dined on Ostrich and Rhea eggs. I have eaten Kangaroo, several species of Antelope and Gazelle. I have enjoyed succulent venison from three types of Deer and biltong from Reindeer.
Other Insect Delicacies
Yes, my tastes have definitely changed. I am no longer a fussy eater.
The one food that I was most reluctant to try was Balut. The reasons why are probably a little bit more complicated than other peoples hesitancy.
In my time working in zoos I have been responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of Day Old Chicks for feeding to animals. I have also incubated many hundreds of eggs and am totally familiar with the development of the embryo within eggs from day one to hatch. I have even had eggs explode on me.
I had always looked on a fresh newly laid egg as food, a delicious nutricious food at that. Anything that had started to develop was taboo so my first encounter with Balut was a bit of a shock.
What is Balut?
Balut is a fertile duck egg which has been allowed to incubate for around 18 out of 28 days. It contains a fully formed duckling foetus. The duckling is dead but unmistakingly 'duck' with beak, wings, feet and feathers.
It is a surprisingly common delicacy in Asia and I have come across it in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. I first encountered it however in the Philippines.
Though there are both Chicken and Duck Balut, in the Philippines the favourite is the duck variety. This comes in two different forms. There is the 'Mamatong' which is only incubated for 15 days and the more common 'Balut sa puti' which is allowed to go to 18 days. There is little to choose between the flavour of the two but the 'Mamatong' is more liquid.
Balut are boiled for about twenty minutes before being prepared for sale and are not normally sold cold. Once cooked they are packed in a carrying basket around a charcoal stove.
Eating a Balut
Balut seem to be sold twice in the day. Usually early morning you will lying in bed and you will hear the call "Baluuuut!" "Baluuuut!" as the vendor rides the streets on his bike. A nice little snack to start the day.
At night they are sold on foot and the sellers will come around the bars several times during the evening. They are very popular snack with beer and Filipinos love them. They are reputed to have, like so many odd foods, aphrodisiac properties. They are sold along with a little plastic twist of paper containing salt and a tiny bag containing vinegar or Chilli oil.
The egg is held pointed end down and the top broken and peeled back to make a hole. A little salt may be added according to taste and the 'soup' drank through the hole. It is surprisingly tasty. The shell is then peeled back slowly a bit at a time to expose the embryo. It can be eaten as one would an ice cream cone or bits picked off with the fingers. Again salt or vinegar added to taste. There is a surprising mix of textures and flavours in one small package. Everything is eaten. The head, wings, feet, feathers and beak.
Balut is not just street food. It is food of the people. I have eaten it in restaurants which are outside of the price bracket of the average Filipino. Balut is on the menu. And why not? It is tasty, it is nutritious and it is healthy.
Balut...the last hurdle
I had seen many people eating Balut. They seemed to enjoy it. The Westerners I saw trying it always did as part of a dare and few got past the the first stage. I thought I would give it a miss. It was the last hurdle.
Whenever I am in Manila in the Philippines I will spend part of my night sitting at Koko's nest on Adriatico Street in Malate (it used to be my favourite bar but has lost atmosphere since changing hands recently). Here I have made many friends, Male, Female and Kathoey. One of my best friends is a young girl called 'Candy' who makes her living selling dried squid in the street. She has a hard life and so I will usually buy her a beer and a bite to eat. It is an odd friendship but it works and she actually asked me to be the godfather of her daughter when she was christened (sadly I did not make it to the church on time).
Anyway. One evening Candy and I were sitting talking as the Balut seller came by. Candy said "I will have a Balut...do you want one." Not waiting for a reply she bought me one anyway. I said thanks and I ate it. It was good.
I had crossed the hurdle. Possibly my last food challenge?
Part of Culture
The Balut is part of Filipino culture. As well as being a traditional food there is a myth and magic and superstition surrounding it.
If you think I have eaten some strange things, you are right but I know of stranger. I do know a girl who ate her husbands forearm but that is another story.