THE BALUT AND THE BRAVE
by Gang Badoy
Nothing embodies hospitality ‘Manila style’ than an offer to try balut. If the most quixotic dish you’ve ever tried is a fish filet with peanut sauce then it’s high time you trek down the streets of this one.
There’s a global rumor going around that the welcome found here is legendary. The offering of comfort for the visitor at the expense of the host family’s sanity is normal and laconically accepted on this Earth coordinate plane. That’s how it is. Visitor is King. We bend over diagonally, to make hosting appear as effortless as possible. Most of us ensure that our guest does not lift a finger. We choreograph our movements so that our ward never forgets Manila nor the warmth of its people.
Delighting someone with shock (along with a momentary queasiness) is our specialty. We regale them with tales of irony like gleeful moments in urban floods, finding friends in a traffic jam, fragile, iron women, alpha-gentle-macho men, sterling musicians in dirty wooden dives –some ironies we got down pat. The balut is parcel of that spirit.
Considered the rock star of staple street foods, balut is a fertilized duck egg, boiled and usually eaten from the shell but it has since graduated to more glamorous forms like cooked ala pobre or preserved in jars, pickling in traditional culinary sauces and spices. Tracing its roots back to a similar preparation in China, the balut got its identity from a duck fare called maodan a word that graphically means, “feathered egg.” Hardly enticing as visual cuisine, the adventure of relishing balut ALSO happens in your mind. It stews a stronger flavor than a chicken egg, and the texture is definitely something to write your suburban home about. Although it is now produced everywhere in the country, the Town of Pateros is still considered the nexus of the balut-eating universe.
We talked to Andy Concio who hails from an old Pateros family. His clan has been in the tradition of balut processing since the time when the river was clean. If modern civilization divides its time between the existence of Christ, Pateros bases its great time division by the river’s state of life. The Pateros river, Concio says, has seen the last of its glory days. It used to be clean and robust with life and was able to support generations of mallard ducks (locally known as Pateros Itik) enough to build an industry and to seal in a town identity. These days, he continues, most of the itik growers are in other flatland areas where rice granaries are found. The reason for this is because the water, chaff and grains around the granaries can sustain the life cycles of the ducks much better than a dirty river can. (Bulacan, Laguna, Pampanga, etc.) Despite this industry migration of sorts, the Pateros hand and magic of processing balut is still acknowledged as primo. The town is renowned for its grower’s careful selection and incubation of duck eggs. You will often hear people ask the vendor, “Pateros?” If the answer is yes, the balut connoisseur walks away comforted. He knows that this shelled culinary delight will not disappoint him and will positively astonish his balikbayan houseguest.
The perfect balut is 17 days old. This is the stage wherein the distinct tang of the duck is now swirling on its juices, but it still maintains a bearably edible texture. Any older (19-21 days) the chick inside will already be recognizable. Any younger (9-12 days) the egg is considered not yet a balut but it is coined a penoy. Colloquially dubbed as the “balut for wimps,” the penoy is not too different in texture and taste from your garden-variety chicken egg. (no offense meant, chicken eggs are cool, too.) So yes, there is a science to this madness.
The balut is hysterically popular in the night scene. Said to be an aphrodisiac, it is almost impossible to have a boring balut-eating session. The conversation that surrounds two or more people cracking on it while standing outside a bar can put indie short film scripts to shame. Virility comes up, the macho question, the taste, the history, the coolness of a lady who can take it, and the fact that it is a great source of protein.
The illustrious balut can replace any gracious host, it will speak of the city better than some tourist guides can. For the perceptive visitor, the balut’s flavor and feel eloquently says, “Welcome to Manila. Prepare to be surprised. Proceed without caution.”
Maximizing Manila is for the courageous and eating balut is our litmus test. Just like the balut, this city is graceful and crass at the same time. Proper and gutsy. Both the city and this culinary curiosity cater only to those who are willing to accept their ironies with utter respect and relish.
Anyone else can have fishballs.
First published in Roam Magazine, 2008.
Photo: REUTERS/John Javellana (PHILIPPINES)