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Duck out of water

(article, Chantal Bourbon)

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We've just finished our main course, and the air between my three table companions and me is charged with anticipation and anxiety. We all know what's coming next on the menu. 

In order to calm down, I clear the plates from which, over the last hour, we've been sampling a variety of traditional Filipino dishes. I had researched, cooked, and served a menu that featured the rich tang of an adobo stew served on a bed of steamy long-grain rice; the salty crispness of the deep-fried beef and shrimp rolls known as lumpia; and the briny crunch of ginisang pechay, a stir-fry of bok choy, pork, and vegetables seasoned with a few drops of fish sauce. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Duck eggs."]I had planned this themed dinner party in honor of my Filipino friend, Marvin, who had challenged me a few months back to develop a menu inspired by the traditional cuisine of his home country. I was game, but the dishes I picked were, ultimately, foods that Westerners generally enjoy without much prodding. 

Now Marvin swallows the last of his wine and announces that it's time for us all to taste the hostess gift he has brought with him. We look at each other, knowing we can't delay the upcoming portion of our dinner experience any longer. We are each supposed to eat a balut.

A balut is a fertilized duck egg in which the embryo has developed for about three weeks. “You can't get more authentic than fertilized eggs,” Marvin assures us, as we follow him into the kitchen. “As soon as the sun sets in Arayat, the streets fill with basket-carrying men traipsing through the neighborhoods selling the snack. People flock around them, drawn by shouts of 'Balut! Baluuuuut!'"

The scene he describes sounds familiar. I muster a mental image of Yankee Stadium, its fast-food vendors climbing up and down the stairs with their fare strapped to their chests, chanting, "Beer! Hot doooogs!"

While the eggs cook in boiling water for 15 minutes, I ask Marvin why baluts are so popular in the Philippines. He shrugs, like he's never really thought about it. “They're cheap, and they're packed with nutrients," he tries, before hitting on the real answer: "And we grew up eating them all the time.”

I drain the water and bring the warm baluts to the kitchen table, along with a small dish of salt. There is one balut for each of the four of us: my fiancé, a female colleague from work, Marvin, and me. But when the time comes to taste the delicacy, the first two promptly decline. 

Whipping out their smartphones, they volunteer instead to record the scene that's about to unfold for posterity. Their hunger — and their disgust — for witnessing the event is palpable, and I suddenly feel like a contestant in a spotlight on a reality TV show. I wonder if this is the dinner party that will make me famous on YouTube.

I force my focus back to the table and the task at hand. Sitting in its shell, the balut looks ordinary, like a large chicken egg. But in my hand, it feels much heavier than I'd expected.

“Take out a small piece of the bottom shell, so you can slurp the liquid inside,” Marvin instructs. Following his lead, I crack the shell, then swallow the clear albumen juice contained between the shell and the cooked egg white. The tepid liquid carries a faint eggy taste, and I am grateful for the lack of viscosity normally associated with raw egg whites. 

Next, following Marvin's directions, I slip off the rest of the shell, revealing a white and yellow blob streaked with a bluish network of veins and blood vessels. A chick's embryo flattened against a compact yolk leaves nothing to the imagination; I can see a little beak, a pair of milky eyes, and two scrawny chicken legs poking out the side. I can even make out a tiny string, which I'll later learn is the umbilical cord. 

Warm juice trickles in droplets through my fingers as I stare at the small, still, very dead baby bird. I'm not easily disgusted by so-called "exotic" foods, but this tiny chick makes me realize that we do indeed take the first bite with our eyes. 

I can't shake off an unbidden image of featherless baby birds fatally fallen from their nests. "It's only an egg," I tell myself, trying to overcome the mental blockage that stands between my mouth and the balut. I sprinkle a bit of salt in the shell in a blatant effort to delay the inevitable outcome. 

Until the very last moment, I consider declaring forfeit. I glance over at Marvin, who has just swallowed the last bite of his balut. “Go on,” he prods. “Like the Philippines, a poor Third World country, a balut is not pretty to look at. But once you taste it, you're sure to love it.” 

I close my eyes and remind myself that this protein-packed treat is beloved by millions of people throughout southeast Asia. And then I cram the whole egg in my mouth at once. 

An intense yolk flavor soon overpowers the introductory chewy texture. After a few seconds, my taste buds have even convinced my brain that I'm eating a common hard-boiled egg. Finally, I'm gulping the downy wings and the soft beak. And the balut is gone.

My fiancé and my coworker have curious expressions on their faces, a mixture of revulsion and awe. But Marvin beams at me in a way that makes me feel I have successfully passed a test. 

I'm not convinced, despite Marvin's assertion, that I'm in love with balut. Then again, perhaps Marvin has always looked askance at my own Western version of balut: the bun-swathed, casing-stuffed, condiment-slathered, processed-meat extravaganza known as the hot dog. 

I suppose all comfort foods stem from familiarity. But tonight I feel I have successfully transcended the limitations of my culture, and put my balut where my mouth is. 

p(bio). Chantal Bourbon has catered many cocktail and dinner parties. Her work has appeared online in TOSKA Magazine, and she tweets @missyshantay. She lives in Montréal, Quebec.

reference-image, l