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Hunting for Balut in South Florida

Balut is the unofficial national dish of the Philippines, and it's

disgusting. I know this because I've eaten it. Granted, my balut might

have been indifferently cooked -- the Japanese chef who made it remarked that he'd "never eat that thing in a billion years" -- but

balut's an easy dish, almost unscrewuppable, and if my own portion

wasn't quite representative, it was close.

Here's what it is: a

fertilized duck egg cooked in boiling water. Usually it's

soft-boiled -- everything inside the egg that isn't a fetal bird ought

to be either gooey or liquid. The diner cracks the top of the egg, gulps

down the fluids within, and then devours the fetal bird like a

shooter. In the Philippines, this ritual is performed daily at the

finest fine-dining establishments and at the slummiest hawker

stalls. When I first heard about balut, I knew I needed to perform that ritual myself, and as soon as possible.

I don't know why I felt so strongly. I think I must have imagined an

experience

midway between an oyster shooter and a Chicken McNugget. Either that or

I harbored the vague hope that any food so popular yet so beyond my

gastronomic experience might open up whole new sensory vistas, that

eating it might be like discovering ground beef or cheese for the first

time.

Balut, I discovered, is hard to find in SoFla. "You cannageddat here," said a woman at a Philippine lunch

counter in West Palm. Her response was representative.

I made

inquiries, put out feelers. Nothing. I was shocked by our local

Philippinos' lack of fidelity to their native foods, until a kindly Philippine waitress explained it to me.

"Not so many Filippinos

in Florida," she said. "And not so many ducks. There is balut -- I've

eaten some -- but here it's a special-occasion food."

The

waitress, it's worth noting, did not work in a Philippine restaurant.

She worked in very good Japanese restaurant in Plantation, in which all

of the waitresses were, for some reason, Filippinas.

"That's fine," I said. "When's the next special occasion? I must have some. Where can I get it?"

"You serious?" she asked, looking at me closely.

"Dead serious."

"You may not like it. A lot of people, they don't grow up with the food, they don't like the food."

"I

have a broad palate," I said. The waitress had every reason to believe

me. I was a regular at her restaurant, and she had once watched me stalk

a still-living, half-butchered lobster across a table as I plundered

its tail for sashimi.

At that moment, one of the restaurant's

chefs walked by. "You're crazy," he said to the waitress. "Balut is -- "

and here he scrunched up his face and shook his head, suggesting that

his small stores of English were inadequate to explain the awfulness of

balut.

"Back to the kitchen!" said the waitress.

"Yes, I'm serious," I said. "I need to try it."

"OK," she said. "I'll call you."

It

took four months and several reminder visits, but the waitress did call

me. I arrived at the Plantation sushi joint with my boyfriend, Penn,

and our world-traveling roommate, Sean, neither of whom are finnicky

eaters. We ordered beer. We waited. The chef strolled out from the

kitchen. "You sure?" he asked.

"We're sure."

"OK." He scrunched up his face. "I wouldn't eat that stuff in a million years."

"Don't listen to him," the waitress said. "Balut is delicious."

In

the Philippines, balut is traditionally served with chilies, vinegar,

and garlic; a Chinese version calls for lime and pepper. In Japanese

restaurants with Philippine waiters in suburban SoFla, it's just served

in a bowl: a big pile of hot eggs full of dead baby birds.

As we

cracked open our eggs, we noticed immediately the absence of soup. The

Japanese chef had hard-boiled the balut, drying it out. Beneath the

shells were gray, ovoid masses, shot through with branching veins. They

had a solid, cheeselike consistency -- one part arid feta thickness,

one part pecorino flakiness. They were difficult to eat with chopsticks.

After a few failed attempts, we ditched our utensils and used our

hands.

Perhaps because the balut was so veiny, we assumed after a

bite or two that we were already gnoshing on embryonic duck. But we

weren't. It was with fascination and horror that, slowly, as our front

teeth gnawed the balut, we saw the gray mass fleck away to reveal the

real embryos. A mound revealed itself to be a head, with eyes and a

beak; we felt limp feathers on our tongues.

In proper Philippine

cuisine, balut is never so mature. The islanders prefer to cook their

fertilized eggs after about two and a half weeks of development, several

days before the birds develop plumage. Ditto in China. Only in

Cambodia, where balut is more of a specialty item, are such advanced

eggs considered desirable.

Even there, I can't imagine mature

balut will ever command more than a niche market. The flavor is muddled,

combining the balmy brightness of an omelet with the dark ichorousness

of organ meats. Combine that with the texture -- alternately flaky,

slimy, and crunchy -- and you've got a recipe for nausea. Combine the

flavor and texture with the aesthetics of balut and you've got a horror

show.

"I'm not going to eat this," said my boyfriend. He'd

excavated his fetal duck entirely from the enveloping gray mass, but it

had come apart in the process; in his hand, he held a lightly feathered,

diminutive, decapitated duck's head.

"I feel like it'd be rude to leave that on the plate," I said.

"You wanna eat it?"

"I'll eat half of it."

"I guess I could eat the beak," he said. "No, the skull. No -- actually, I'll eat the beak."

He

snapped the beak off the little duck's face and popped it in his mouth.

I chewed on the skull. It wasn't hard. It wasn't soft. It was chewy. It

tasted of raw liver and undercooked chicken. It was the last damned bit

of balut I'd ever eat.

My guests had each eaten an egg. I'd had

two. We still had a bowl of hot eggs in front of us. We dashed about the

restaurant, asking patrons if they wanted to try some. Some accepted.

We kept giving away the balut until the chef emerged from the kitchen,

looking stricken, and asked us to stop.


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