Saturday, 7 July 2012

Ugly duckling: eating balut in the Philippines

Peeling a fertilised balut egg, while trying to hold down my nausea
© Marge Francia/2012/Philippines
Balut is probably South East Asia’s most gruesome delicacy. It’s a fertilized duck egg with a half-grown embryo that is boiled alive and eaten whole. For Filipinos, balut is a treat. They buy it from street vendors or in local restaurants and bars, where it is served as a drinking snack, much like salted peanuts in British pubs. Inside the shell is a curled up foetus that looks like something out of an Alien horror movie or one of Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibitions. Filipino children will cheerfully crunch their way through the foetal bones and feathers but just the thought of it makes me feel ill.

I’ve been coming to the Philippines for three years, as part of my work for UNICEF. In my spare time, I’ve visited archipelagos of limestone islands off Palawan and dived with thresher sharks. I’ve climbed an active volcano at Taal and marvelled at the view from the rim, while trying to ignore the sulphurous smell. And I’ve visited the 2,000-year-old rice terraces high up in the remote tribal mountains of Luzon. But each time I managed to avoid eating balut.

However, I’m now writing a travel book about the country and trying to get beneath the skin of its culture. Eating balut is considered a rite of passage to becoming an honorary Filipino and I knew I couldn’t avoid it forever. Finally, I gave in. “OK, let’s do it,” I said to my Filipina friend Marge when I visited this February. ”I’m ready to eat balut.”