Hunting for Balut in South Florida
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.
"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.
"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.