Stuck in the Middle with Balut

Photo courtesy of my friend Tom Moran who insisted I tell you he "did not partake." Tom was in Southeast Asia recently with his trusty bicycle and returned with lots of great photos.

My students eat dog. OK, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s not exactly a lie. Last week my World Lit class spotted the bags under my eyes and took advantage of the situation by asking off topic questions and making distracting statements.  This kind of thing happens occasionally when students are bored by an assignment and I’m tired: like wolves taking down an old or sickly caribou, they moved in for the kill.  I gave up quickly, figuring that since they didn’t want to talk about avant-garde short fiction in contemporary Japan, we might as well talk about symbolism in food.

I suggested that a culture’s food is a kind of narrative that reveals as much as its literature.  One of my students, let’s call him The Devil’s Advocate, challenged me on this statement and so I asked the class to name the strangest food they ever ate.  One young woman answered balut.  I got other answers like alligator, piranha, and of course, there was the dog.  While dog meat was the most taboo, the balut proved to be the most revealing.

Marshall Astor's photo of balut.

Balut is a partially developed chicken or duck embryo that’s boiled in its shell and eaten sometimes with a little salt or chili pepper and vinegar.  I asked the class why Americans would shy away from a treat like this.  The student who had actually eaten it said that you can taste the feathers and the beak, which, gastronomically speaking, is aesthetically interesting but not necessarily appealing. But another student, let’s call him Quiet Guy at the Back of the Class Who Occasionally Pipes Up and Says Something Brilliant, said that Americans have a problem with food like balut because it’s something “in between”.  Americans, he claimed, like things in black or white rather than shades of grey; eggs are cool, so are chickens, but you know, pick a side, dude.

I agree with Quiet Guy, but I would extend that notion to human beings in general, not just Americans.  Especially when it comes to food.  We need categories.  We tend not to enjoy the culinary chimera, the gustatory hybrid, until we have been trained to do so (as in the “gourmand” or “foodie”) or until a category emerges that can explain what we don’t understand. For instance, had I suggested to you five years ago that a Roasted Garlic Onion Jam was tasty and delicious, you might have balked at the idea, but the recent emergence of the “Sweet & Savory” category has given us a place to put this creature.  It’s no longer “Weird,” it’s “Sweet and Savory.”  Kettle Corn was the first place I recall seeing the Sweet & Savory concept widely consumed.  It’s been around in cultural pockets for some time (i.e. the Southern “banana sandwich,” more on that in a minute) but it’s only recently that Sweet & Savory has become an acceptable food for the McDonalds Masses. Balut, however, poses a special intellectual problem for Americans.  It’s an embryo. Americans have been shot over the definition of this word, for crying out loud! I could be wrong but my guess is that, unlike kettle corn, balut is never really going to take off.  (If you ever do get a hankering for it, and you’re a local, you can actually pick some up right here in Fairbanks at the Asian Food Market.)

So, am I suggesting that you shouldn’t eat the balut? No. Finding pleasure in eating is like finding pleasure with a new lover, you have to be curious, willing to experiment, and willing to pay close attention to your own sense of being. Adventurous eating is a way of experiencing the present moment with new, childlike wonder, a moment that occurs less and less as the years march by.  So, I say eat the balut.  You might not like it, but think of it as good material when you’re being forced to engage in small talk…rather than “What about all this rain, huh?” you can ask “What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?” knowing that whatever the other guy’s answer is, yours will surely beat it.

About that Banana Sandwich… This is something I frequently ate as a child and I’m sharing it because it’s a combination of ingredients that seems strange to some (Yankees); it breaks Acceptable Food Combination Rules.  But here’s the category it falls into: Things Elvis Ate.  Some of you may not find that an acceptable category, so you should know that it also fits into the Sweet & Savory slot.  See that? New Category = Acceptable Food Combination. Be brave. Try it.

The Elvis

  • 2 slices whole wheat bread (that’s how my Grandmother made it, so that’s how you’re going to make it)
  • 1/2 banana, sliced lengthwise into 1/4 inch thick slices
  • 1 tablespoon chunky peanut butter
  • 1 tablespoon mayonnaise

Instructions: Put the peanut butter on one side and the mayo on the other, bananas in the middle. Put a good chunk of butter in a frying pan and fry the sandwich like you would a grilled cheese.  This is great for breakfast, but I don’t recommend combining it with Valium and Demoral, because that will apparently kill you.

I know what you’re thinking. The mayo is the difficult part. But if you don’t include it, you haven’t made an Elvis, you’ve made toast with bananas and peanut butter.  Don’t be a sissy. Put the mayo on.

*By the way, I was reminded of this sandwich (I haven’t eaten it since I was about 12) by a nice fellow from North Carolina who offered to send me some Duke’s Mayonnaise.  He is clearly a man after my own heart because he sells a pig cooker called the Carolina Cooker.  I’m hoping he will create one painted pink and call it the Tart Little Piggy Cooker.  It should come with custom flames on the side.

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11 thoughts on “Stuck in the Middle with Balut

  • Sue Cole

    The Woodway has a barbecue cooker that they slow cook pork in for their openings that is painted pink and made to look like a pig. I ate banana sandwiches as a kid, but they were toast, mayonnaise and sliced bananas. I didn’t hear about the Elvis version until later.

    • Madara Hill Post author

      Maybe it’s not a purely southern thing then. In my opinion the peanut butter is actually a “condiment” on this sandwich, the mayo and banana being the “meat and cheese”.

  • duende

    In the homey sandwich category, don’t forget yummy pineapple sandwiches! Just white bread (the only time I eat it), mayo, and pineapple slices. Or tomato–same deal–but it can be with other breads… My mother used to make them for us in West Palm. That would be Florida.

  • Tom Moran

    In an odd coincidence, while I did not in fact eat the snouts, I have had many score of the aforementioned Elvis sandwiches in my day. I’ve never tried adding mayo though, so I guess I have only been enjoying pale imitations. I’ve also never tried them with another fabled Elvis add-on – bacon.

    • Madara Hill Post author

      I think you did eat the snouts… but you’re afraid all the conventional Americans you know would find eating “noses” an ethically reprehensible act (they would). Go ahead, Tom, you can be honest. This is a safe place. We all know you ate the snouts.

      And yes, pale imitations indeed.

  • Nicole

    When I was growing up my Dad and Grandpa harvested “fish eggs” from the local streams. Our sandwiches consisted of white bread, butter, and fish eggs. Now, I tell people I grew up eating Caviar Sandwiches!

  • Tom Moran

    No snouts, honest. The problem is they were raw (though they may have been marinated.) Had they been served barbecued on sticks – as was a great deal of interesting and questionable food in that part of the world – I may have considered it.

  • Marina

    Since I come from a Filipino family, I’ve always known about, and even tasted, balut. Your student’s notion that it borders what many people find acceptable makes a lot of sense, heck, it’s probably the reason why so many people refuse to eat SPAM despite all the fun things you can do with it.

    I remember tasting balut as a kid; I closed my eyes and tried drinking the broth inside first. I was surprised at how tasty it actually was, but still found the beak and feathers too alien to consume. My mother admitted that many filipinos, including herself, can’t look while eating; they close their eyes and down it all at once. If you let it cool off too much, it loses flavor and the oddities of beak and feather become more apparent and difficult to eat.

  • Jean

    Gee….I dunno about half-formed embryos. I do eat abit of meat….but there is a limit. And I’ve eaten wierd stuff probably more frequently than some people. Chinese cuisine is um…broad in coverage.

    I’ll stick to wood ears, a form of tree fungus. Looks like floppy, dark brown rubbery mushroom. (Not a big deal to eat.) Or squid. Or abalone (Though that’s an endangered species. I had it as a child.) Or all sorts of seaweed.

    Just to give an idea a more tame, but more palatable unusual dish to non-Asian palates: I still enjoy steamed pork with abit of salted dried fish cooked into it. Yes, it gives a slightly fishy taste to the meat. But it’s like salting another meat. Like adding olives or achovies to a dish for flavour.