There are strange foods, nasty foods, really bizarre foods, and foods that maybe just should not be foods in the first place. Over the past couple of years, Dr. Manny Alvarez and I have sampled our way through some truly odd gustatory items, from durian ice cream (think garbage-flavored ice cream) to fried blowfish sperm, which can kill you if not prepared properly. We have eaten brain ravioli, penis noodle soup, raw sea urchin, and grasshopper tacos. We have sat woozy with vapors after such items, but we have made it through. When it comes to consuming weird foods, we are professionals, satisfied by our achievements, basking in the glow that only engaging in truly sophomoric exercises with food can engender.
The idea behind this romp through the world of strange foods is to stretch the boundaries of the eating experience itself, and to come up with solid reasons why the dietary items of choice are actually good for you. Thus far, we have been able to come up with such rationales, to justify our dining table pranks. And all the while, we have heard murmurings about a food so strange, it is regarded by some as the El Dorado of bizarre edible items. Its name? Balut. Say buh-loot. Then shudder in fear.
How weird can a food be, you ask? Balut is way up there in the ionosphere of weird, far past gonzo. Balut is fear itself. Though a snack much beloved in the Philippines, balut to us is a torture of an item, a bizarrely-conceived if not abjectly demonic dish. What is it? Balut is an eleven day old fertilized duck egg, containing the partially formed embryo of a duck, surrounded by egg. Imagine a tiny, half-formed head, a bit of a beak, formative guts and bones and the odd feather, all surrounded by egg and you’ve got balut. It’s not a pretty sight.
More weird foods from Dr. Manny and the Medicine Hunter:
At Maharlika Filipino Moderno restaurant in New York City, owner Nicole Ponseca is fulfilling a dream, serving indigenous foods from her native land in a cheerful, friendly atmosphere. Dr. Manny and I had a date with destiny, and Nicole played an important role in our trajectory into the shadow-world of balut. Gracious and eager to initiate us, she described how balut is eaten as a regular snack back home, and how she is happy that people journey to her restaurant to sample this unusual dish. As Nicole waxed on, Dr. Manny grew agitated.
The balut at Maharlika is cooked for half an hour, a truly hard-boiled egg. When each of us was served our balut, Dr Manny began issuing various bargains with the devil, including “I’d eat a pound of fried eyeballs instead of this,” a statement that is sure to prove troublesome down the road. He became increasingly apoplectic as we carefully tapped spoons against the shells of our eggs, revealing the gruesome sight inside. Nicole urged “be sure to drink the broth,” at which point I was certain that Dr. Manny dwelled at the absolute edge of hurling.
The top inside of the egg featured a little partly-formed bird head and cooked yolk. The head, as it turned out, was custardy, almost creamy in consistency. The bottom of the egg is all white, hard as rubber. The flavor truly was a blend of duck and egg, with a few strange flavor notes thrown in. As advertised, the broth was quite good, like a duck broth, and the overall flavor was totally tolerable. It’s the sight of balut that gets to you. Dr. Manny looked inside his egg, and found all misery there. He got away with a bite and much protesting. He even dragged our producer Paula Rizzo into the shot, for a dignified and unafraid bite of balut. As for me? I ate the whole thing, and found it worth sampling.
So the question arises, to complete the nature of our food quest. What special properties does balut possess to warrant actually eating it? For one, it is a high protein food, and owing to its simplicity is probably quite easy to digest. It is also rich in beneficial essential fatty acids, which play key roles in organ health and overall hormonal activity. But balut may also contain embryonic stem cells of rejuvenating value when eaten. Preliminary studies in some research centers shows that consuming stem cells demonstrates a salutary effect on overall health, energy and youthful appearance. We will have to wait for some scientists to crack the mighty nutritional mysteries of balut.
Is balut the end of the weird food line for Dr. Manny and me? It could have been, but due to Dr. Manny’s strident on-camera declarations, I believe that a pound of fried eyeballs is in our weird food future.
Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at www.MedicineHunter.com