Sunday, March 23, 2008

Harry Connick, Jr. Eats Balut!

Pateros will always be associated with Balut. Always.

When people ask me where I live and I tell them I stay in Pateros, they would always ask “Where is that? Is that in Novaliches?” Or any other place up north, down south, or even the far east or the wild wild west. Anywhere except Pateros.

"It’s that little town that makes the best tasting balut." After hearing this from me, finally you see their faces light up. The magic word just opened their minds to the reality that there is indeed a town named Pateros. One wonders if Pateros gave birth to the balut, or if it was balut that gave birth to Pateros. However one looks at it, the fates of Pateros and Balut are forever intertwined.

And yes Kulasa, the famous singer/actor from New Orleans did eat a whole balut on stage during his recent concert here in Manila. Harry Connick Jr. must have been watching too many episodes of The Fear Factor to make balut-eating the cornerstone of the intermission spiel for this one-night-only concert. People actually paid handsome money - even obscene during these difficult times, to see him do this. Fortunately, a friend who works at MTV gave us free tickets - bless his good soul.

And you read it right, he ate one whole balut. The yolk, the duck embryo and that hard white portion that everyone calls the “bato” – he shoved it all into his mouth in one go. It must have taken him more than 5 minutes to finally swallow the entire thing. He paced back and forth on the stage, even going down and taking a seat on the front row. He finally downed the balut with the help of 2 cans of Coke.When he sat down and played the piano, he gave out a loud burp in the middle of a song. The audience was in stitches. The white man has earned his right to be an adopted Pinoy.

However, not everything in that intermission was amusing. There were some patently embarrassing lapses, especially when a Filipina lady from the front row was called on stage to teach Harry the correct way to eat balut. They should just have called in the balut vendor outside the PICC if they wanted to do it correctly.

So, let us get some things straight about this famous Pateros delicacy:

  1. Only duck eggs can be made into Balut. More specifically, it is the egg laid by the local duck variety called the “pato”, sometimes more commonly referred to as "itik". They should not be confused with the common white-colored duck, which we call "bibe". The eggs laid by itiks can be distinguished by its hard shell. In the olden days, these ducks were raised in the Pateros River, where abundant shellfish were conducive for ducks to produce these hard-shelled eggs. But now the river is dead and the ducks are gone, thus Pateros imports the eggs it uses to produce balut from Laguna. Some towns have tried to imitate balut by using chicken eggs. Believe me, you will not like what you will see when you crack open those bogus baluts. So make sure the shell is hard enough before buying that balut.
  2. Fresh duck eggs are called “sariwa”, which literally means fresh. This can be boiled like ordinary chicken eggs and eaten with salt, or made into delicious omelets. The “sariwa” is also the base for another famous Pateros product – the red egg. The fresh duck eggs are immersed into a salty concoction for some time, then boiled and colored red to distinguish it from its more famous cousin. The best “maalat” or "itlog na pula", as the red eggs are called by locals, are those that have yolks oozing with natural oil. Definitely yummy, especially with fresh tomatoes and rice, or as filling for hot pan-de-sal.
  3. Those that are selected to become balut are put into large drums made from bamboo strips filled with dried rice husks and kept in warehouses called “kamalig”. This is the native and completely organic version of an incubator used to keep the eggs warm. The counting of the days need to be precise, or else you may end up with embryos that are either too small or too large. Monitoring is done through “pagsisilaw” or putting the eggs against a small hole carved out of a wooden box with a high-wattage bulb inside working pretty much like an x-ray machine. The ideal incubation days would be between 16 to 17 days for a perfect “balut sa puti”.
  4. When an egg fails to fertilize during this period, it becomes another incarnation of the balut, the “penoy”. Remember, your friendly balut vendor always shout “balut! penoy! balut!” as immortalized in that catchy folk song. The Penoy is a Balut that failed to fertilize, and is boiled like an ordinary egg and can become either a “higupin”, meaning it is creamy and can be sucked from the shell – literally, or like an ordinary hard boiled egg but with the yolk and the white already mixed together – imagine scrambled egg but still inside the shell. There is also the “heko-heko”, which is a bit blackish and had a slight pungent smell. Definitely not for the faint of heart.
  5. As in any pregnancy – which is what balut is all about anyway, things can go wrong along the way. The fertilized egg can “die” before it reaches the ideal maturity date – a miscarriage if you may call it. The embryo stops developing and start to rot inside the shell. Ordinarily, these rotten eggs will be thrown away, or put into better use by being thrown towards the direction of rotten politicians. But in Pateros, we have a special name for this – the “abnoy”. It is a delicacy that requires an acquired taste. It is not for everyone, especially if you do not relish eating a rotten egg. But like the durian, its connoisseurs swear that it might smell rotten like hell, but it sure does taste like heaven. I will provide a recipe for the abnoy in a later post, in case you want to be adventurous with what you put in your mouth.
Harry asked an impeccably dressed lady from the audience to teach him how to eat the balut. Unfortunately, the lady must have not even eaten a balut in her entire sheltered life. So, all she could offer were half-hazard guesses on the “how-to” of eating a balut. So how does one eat a balut? There is actually a time-honored ritual for this favorite pinoy gastronomic past-time. If you want to be a true-blue balut worshipper, read on…

  1. Take the warm balut (yes, it has to be warm!) in your hands and look for the larger end of the egg.
  2. Strike the larger end against any hard surface (including your head if it is hard enough) until a small hole is cracked open. Peel off just enough broken shells to expose the egg's membrane. Make a hole in the membrane big enough to peek into the inside of the balut. Be careful not to spill the precious fluid inside!
  3. Put the egg into your mouth and take a sip from the small opening. The amniotic fluid will prepare your taste buds for the next gastronomic experience, if you're still not throwing up, or fainting - whichever comes first at this point.
  4. After the fluid had been fully drained in your mouth, start peeling off the rest of the shell until the inside of the egg is exposed halfway. Now, first timers are allowed to look away at this point, as the sight of the duck embryo may not be that appealing to a lot of people, especially if it is already well-developed with feathers, legs, beak and all very much identifiable. Sprinkle some rock salt on the balut and start biting into it. Some people will take 2 to 3 bites to finish off the egg, while some will take it all in one go, like Harry. I personally prefer eating the yolk first, then the embryo – if I’m in the mood. You are not supposed to eat the “bato”, which is the hard whitish part. Leave the "bato" for Darna and Ding.
  5. Recently, I see a lot of people pouring vinegar into their balut. This is not all proper as the vinegar dilutes the delicate flavor of the egg. This is sacrilege! Balut is eaten warm and with rock salt, nothing more and nothing less. Stay with the basics and you will experience the full savory and delicate taste as it was intended to be.

So this is Balut 101 in a nutshell. Next time you feel like doing a Fear Factor, or if you are a seasoned balut eater already, keep these facts in mind. And while you are at it, remember that the fate of the balut is tied to the fate of the Pateros River. Please help our town revive the Pateros River. Years of neglect and apathy have virtually killed the once pristine river, and are now threatening to kill the balut industry itself. Once the source of duck eggs of the highest quality, Pateros now have to buy its eggs used for balut-making from Laguna. It is pathetic, even bordering on the insane. Pretty much the same as our situation with the country's rice supply.

I do not know the details of the recently launched Pateros River Basin Project, but if it aims to save and revive the Pateros River, I am all for it. Let us save our river, it is the soul of our beloved Pateros. It will be a shame if future generations will not be able to have the experience of eating Balut. Ask Harry Connick, Jr.

(Photo of Harry eating balut is taken from the MTV Philippines Website. Photo of "abnoys" is from the collection of Elmer Nocheseda.)


Kelly Mercado-Flynn said...

I truly enjoy your stories and I think that your writing style is really good. I admire your initiative to highlight Pateros and its charms, it is indeed a noble cause. Like you, I have fond memories of the place as I am an alumnus of PCS Batch 81.
Keep coming up with your features and hope to meet you one day. Am based in Qatar with my family for now.

As Pinoy as balut,

Kelly Mercado-Flynn

bebeth said...

I really miss balut and its other derivatives (penoy, abnoy (esp. heko). I remember when I went home to visit, my mom was waving a bag of balut when she met me at the airport. It gave me the feeling that I was truly home. Only in Pateros can you get the authentic balut sa puti.