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.”

Marge is a UNICEF media officer and one of my best friends in the Philippines. She used to be in a blues-rock band and, like me, is a keen amateur photographer. Over time, Marge has become my unofficial literary agent in Manila, and now I just have to express an interest in a subject and she’ll be off chasing contacts. “I’m really happy you’re going to eat balut. It’s part of everyday Filipino life. I’ve eaten it since I was a child,” she told me. “We can go to Pateros. They have the best balut in Manila. My best friend’s brother’s wife lives there.”

‘Where the ducks are’

A tuk-tuk in a Pateros side street, decorated with Che Guevera artwork
© Andy Brown/2012/Philippines
Early on Sunday morning, Marge picked me up in a taxi and we set off to Pateros to meet up with our local contact, Mei. Previously a separate town, Pateros is now part of Manila. The name is derived from Spanish and means ‘the place where the ducks are’.

We entered Pateros over an unremarkable concrete bridge across a depleted river full of rubbish and sewage. Pateros is so far off the tourist radar that even Lonely Planet doesn’t mention it, and I was literally the only foreigner in town. The streets were full of pedestrians, tuk-tuks and jeepneys (World War II-style American jeeps that have been transformed into colourful public buses). Street vendors lined the pavements selling fruit, vegetables and eggs – both regular and fertilized. We saw one enterprising vendor with a psychedelic collection of caged birds, their feathers dyed bright and unnatural colours.  “This is the real Manila,” Marge observed. “It’s not sanitized like Makati.”

We met Mei outside Jollibee, the Filipino equivalent of McDonalds. Instead of the yellow M sign, the restaurants are advertised with a surreal illuminated sign featuring a giant red bee with a human face. She took us down a side street to one of the cottage factories where balut is made.

Here we met Marty Capco, a middle aged Filipina woman who manages the factory with her husband Rufina. She sat at a desk in the alleyway working on the company books.  “Our family has been making balut for three generations, starting with my grandfather,” she said “We still make them the traditional way.”

Buying balut eggs from Pateros used to be a guarantee of quality, but Marty told us that other places now have their eggs delivered from large out-of-town factories. “They’re just using the name,” she said. “I worry about the future of the Pateros balut industry.”

Francisco uses a light box to sort balut eggs according to the size of the embryo
© Marge Francia/2012/Philippines
After talking to Marty, we went inside the factory. It was a medium-sized barn with a couple of electric bulbs hanging from the ceiling and straw on the floor. It was very dark and it took a minute for my eyes to adjust. The barn was full of tables piled high with sacks and trays of perfectly-formed white eggs. There were two men working inside the barn. We spoke to Francisco, a tired-looking middle-aged Filipino in a white t-shirt. He was busy sorting eggs by holding them against a light box. This allowed him to see the shape and size of the embryo inside the now translucent shell.

“I’m originally from Pampanga province, north of Manila, but I’ve lived and worked here for 40 years,” Francisco said. “I do this job to support my family – I have a wife and six children.” He pointed to a nearby sack of eggs. “We let the eggs age for ten days in rice husks. After ten days, I sort the eggs and choose the ones that are ready for cooking.”

Francisco agreed with Marty’s portrayal of a struggling industry. “The demand for balut is not as strong as before,” he continued. “Prices have gone up and people don’t buy as much as they used to. Some people make their own balut at home. We sell our eggs for 25 centabos each [less than 1p].”

Francisco kept looking at the light box while he spoke to us, barely slowing the rapid movement of his hands. I was impressed by both his skill and his single mindedness. I’d assumed that egg sorting was just one of his duties but in fact he’d been doing this one task over and over for decades. As someone with a low boredom threshold, I couldn’t imagine what that must be like. “I’m just a segregator,” he said.

Fiesta of Santa Marta

Eli works on his painting of Pateros past and present, including a duck in sandals
© Marge Francia/2012/Philippines
Mei asked if I wanted to see Pateros Church and, keen to put off lunch for as long as possible, I agreed. Here, people were busy preparing for the fiesta of Santa Marta the following weekend. In a tradition inherited from Spanish colonial times, each town and municipality has a patron saint which they celebrate once a year with a lavish party. In the square opposite the church, a group of young artists were busy painting murals on large boards. There was one for each barangay (village) in Pateros and the artists were competing to depict the history of the town.

We got chatting to Eli, the lead artist for Martirez Barangay where Mei lives. He was a tattoo artist with heavily inked arms and legs and the sunken cheeks of a much older man. Eli’s picture included a duck and balut eggs but was dominated by a huge crocodile, with the image of Santa Marta appearing miraculously between its gaping jaws. I asked Eli what the picture meant. “It’s based on local folklore,” he explained. “There used to be a crocodile that lived down by the river. It was eating all the ducks so the people killed it with a sword. Inside its mouth, they found the image of Santa Marta.” Eli was hoping to win the first prize of 7,000 peso [100 GBP]. “If I win, I’ll give some to my family and use the rest to buy supplies for the shop,” he said.

I returned to Pateros the following weekend for the fiesta. On Saturday night, the Santa Marta was carried through the darkened streets on a wooden throne, lit up with lights and garlanded with flowers. The image itself was not much to look at, resembling a Victorian doll in an old-fashioned dress. A group of men danced down the street with the throne on their shoulders, causing it to lurch from side to side. Behind them came a brass band blowing ‘pada pada pom pom’ with gusto. Following the band was a large crowd of locals dancing to the music. Old men stood around watching and drinking beer. It was like stepping back in time. I could imagine the same procession, music and dancing in the time of Jose Rizal over a hundred years ago.

Dos Hermanas

Staff at the Dos Hermanas restaurant in Payatas
© Andy Brown/2012/Philippines
I dragged out the conversation with Eli as long as I could but eventually I had to face the inevitability of lunchtime. We went to a restaurant on the main street called Dos Hermanas, run by a middle aged Filipino couple. The husband, Danny, was a heavy set man in a communist hammer-and-sickle t-shirt. I told him I was interested in balut. “We get our eggs from the Capco’s factory,” he said. “They make the best eggs in town.”

Danny was happy to explain share his culinary technique. “We cook the eggs exactly 18 days after they come out the chicken’s ass,” he said, pointing at his own backside. “We marinate the egg for a few hours and then cook it slowly for 30 minutes.” A troubling thought occurred to me for the first time. If the chick was still inside the egg, there was no way to kill it before cooking it. I’m not a vegetarian but I prefer my meat to be humanely kept and killed. “Are the chicks boiled alive?” I asked. “Yes of course,” Danny said.

By this point I was feeling distinctly queasy, with the same nervous feeling in the stomach that I get before going to the dentist or paragliding. The feeling became stronger when I saw the eggs arrive, looking all white and innocent on a small plate. Mei demonstrated how to eat one. “You crack the top and drink the soup,” she said. “Then peel it, add some salt and eat it in two bites.” She showed me a line around the middle of her peeled egg. “The top half is the chick, the bottom is the yolk. You should eat the chick first. The trick is not to look at it, just do it.”

As soon as I cracked my own egg, a strong smell emanated from inside, which did indeed resemble duck soup. I drank the liquid inside, which had an intense meaty flavour. The challenge really began when I peeled the egg. It was impossible to do this without looking at it. On the inside of the shell was a web of what appeared to be blood vessels. Once peeled, you were left with an egg-shaped ball of meat and yolk. The embryo was curled up in a foetal position, facing inwards, but I could still see the black strands of half-formed feathers and something dark and round that looked suspiciously like an eye.

Mei teaches me how to eat balut at Dos Hermanas
© Marge Francia/2012/Philippines
I had come too far to turn back, so with a pained look at Marge, I bit in deeply, taking the whole duckling in one mouthful. Like the soup, there was nothing wrong with the flavour, which was similar to roast chicken. It was the idea of it and the texture that were unpleasant. The worst part was a crunchy bit in the middle that presumably was a blend of beak and skull. I was left with the yolk, which was similar to a normal hard-boiled egg, but with traces of blood in the middle. The flavour was now of egg rather than meat, but stronger than the chicken eggs I was used to.

Balut is supposed to be an aphrodisiac but sex was the last thing on my mind when I finished. Instead, I just felt vaguely nauseous. I washed the balut down with a can of pineapple juice, which took away the flavour, if not the memory of the small crunchy bones. Marge only ate the yolk of her egg. “My older brothers always used to eat the chick for me,” she confessed.

Curious to see what balut really looked like now I’d finished eating, I dissected Marge’s leftovers. Uncoiled, the foetus was clearly already a duckling, with webbed feet, small wings and an oversized head with a beak and large, saucer-like eyes. Mei was right – there was no way I could eat another one now I’d seen it whole. With more detached curiosity, I noticed four proto-teeth on the beak. These are an evolutionary throwback to dinosaurs, the ancestors of birds. By the time the duck is born, they’ve disappeared.

Blast from the past

Mei’s grandmother and her husband circa 1950, after they eloped to get married
© Andy Brown/2012/Philippines
After lunch we went to meet Mei’s lola (grandmother) Feliciana at their extended family home. She was a surprisingly alert 81-year-old who fed us papayas from her garden and, with a bit of encouragement, reminisced happily about the old days. “It was beautiful round here when I was a child,” she said. “There were just a few bamboo houses surrounded by rice fields and coconut trees. The river was wide and clean and full of ducks. I would go to play in the river with other children. We would look for duck eggs and bring them home to cook and eat. We used to get water from a well, and if we wanted to go to Manila we had to catch a calesa [horse drawn carriage].”

Feliciana told us about the Second World War and meeting her husband, who worked for the American army. With a mischievous twinkle in her eye, she described how they ran away to get married after her father tried to end the relationship. The wooden walls of her house were filled with black and white photos from her youth, alongside more recent pictures of her small army of grandchildren. “This makes me miss my lola,” Marge said. “She used to have lots of stories about the old days too.”

We said goodbye to Feliciana, and caught a tricycle back to Makati. I was glad that I’d tried balut but saw no need ever to do so again. I was aware that my reaction was mainly cultural, like the time I saw skewers of fried cockroaches at a night market in Beijing. For Filipinos who are brought up on it, eating balut is perfectly normal and natural. “My daughter Moonshine is seven.” Mei told me. “She loves balut. She eats the yolk first and unwraps the chick. She kisses it on the beak and says ‘poor chick, why did you have to die?’ Then she eats it.”

A dissected balut, showing the partially-formed duckling inside.
The teeth on the beak are a throwback to the bird’s dinosaur ancestors
© Andy Brown/2012/Philippines

4 comments:

  1. So proud of you, Andy Brown! I thought you were going to make the title 'Hot chicks, ugly duckling' or something to that effect.

    Great article on Pateros. I especially liked the part about Marty.

    I think I will eat balut in your honor tonight!

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  2. Thanks Gina! Yeah I liked 'hot chicks' too, but in the end I couldn't get past the fact that they're not actually chickens. Enjoy your dinner! Yuk.

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  3. I'm a Filipino but still hesitant to eat the so called "pinoy treat".

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    Replies
    1. I figure you have to try it once, then you can say you've done it and you never have to have it again. That's my plan at any rate!

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