Manila probably has all kinds of things to recommend it—I’ve heard tell of the world’s smallest volcano not too far from the city; of striking gorges; of a nice seawall; of an old town that retains some charm. I have never seen these things, so I can’t report on them. I have, however, eaten boiled duck embryos in Manila, so I’ll tell you about them.
I suppose you’re thoroughly disgusted by now, but it’s not really as bad as it sounds. I mean, after all, I’ve eaten insects, sea slugs, fruit that smells like rotting excrement, and living creatures that have tried to crawl away, and compared to all that, boiled duck embryos are no big deal. Or, at least, they shouldn’t be.
Nevertheless, I do confess that I hesitated when it came time to shell my first boiled duck embryo—known as “balut” in the Philippines. It should first be said that you can’t find them in restaurants, or, at least, not in most restaurants. The way to acquire balut is to buy them from vendors in the street. This is, of course, well nigh impossible—or, at least, unadvisable—if you’re not Filipino, which means that you’re going to need to rely on a friendly Filipino. Happily, this is easy, since Filipinos are resolutely friendly people and they will be thrilled and not a little impressed that you want to try balut.
It was my Filipino hosts who procured some balut for themselves, my colleagues, and me. They took out their plastic bag full of balut while we were sitting in a traditional restaurant eating things like grilled squid, a couple of kinds of pork, and tilapia—a very good freshwater fish that could save the world, according to environmentalist aquaculture specialists (long story). All of this was eaten without knives, since Filipinos don’t use knives. They cut with their spoons. Now, I always try to maintain a strictly neutral, nonjudgmental view on local cultural traits, but this no-knife thing does seem kind of pointless to me (no pun intended). One Filipino told me that it was because the Spanish hadn’t allowed Filipinos to own knives when they were the colonial overlords of the Philippines (the Spanish always got along swimmingly with their subject populations). Anyway, at the end of our knifeless meal, we were presented with the balut.
Balut is made by taking a fertilized duck egg that’s been incubating for 17 or 18 days, and quickly boiling it. The result is a cross between a hard-boiled egg and … well … a baby duck. They are eaten cold. There’s a right way to eat balut and a wrong way to eat balut. The right way to eat it is this:
1. Break the egg on its large end. This already is difficult, because duck eggs are dismayingly symmetrical. If you break it on its big end, then you have a nice little cup that prepares you for Step 2. If you break it on the small end, you get a rather pitiful tiny beak or something.
2. Using the egg as a kind of cup, tip it up to your mouth and drink the “juice.” It actually tastes like very nice chicken soup, although, personally, I’d much prefer it if they didn’t call it “juice.”
3. Eat the yellow bits. This tastes like hard-boiled egg poached in chicken soup. Or perhaps like the red bits inside a crab. Or maybe a mix of them. Or something.
4. Eat the white bits, which will hopefully mask the feathery bits inside. This is crunchy. Don’t think about why.
5. Drink some beer.
The wrong way to eat balut is any other way.
Objectively speaking, balut are good, and, for that matter, you eat a lot of babies in France, anyway: duckling is a delicacy and suckling pigs are all the rage in Corsica. And, of course, you don’t have to be French to eat veal or lamb. Still …
That’s about it, really. To a degree, I’m cheating by writing about Manila, since I haven’t really had a chance to explore and my recent trip there was my first. I wasn’t even planning to write about the city, but it was difficult to pass up telling you about embryonic ducks. Since, though, this is pretty light, I did make some notes during my three-day visit about a few other specificities …
Small personal-transportation devices. Cities throughout Asia abound with small taxi-type vehicles. (Please note that I in no way include Japan in the word "Asia"—Japan is Japan.) In Thailand they are called “tuk-tuks,” in India they are called “autos” (short for “auto-rickshaw”), etc. These are three-wheeled devices with two-stroke engines, open sides, and a small bench in the back where you can squeeze three people as long as they have relatively small asses. In Manila, these do not exist. Instead, you find vehicles that are kind of like bicycles with sidecars, some with the same rickety motors, others just with pedals. The passenger compartment is covered on top and open on the sides. This is the only city I know with these things.
Larger transportation devices. The streets of Manila are full of very funky car-truck-van things that are kind of a cross between covered stretch pickups and pygmy buses. They all have pretty much the same design, which looks like it was based on a small American truck of the 1930s. The rear of these vehicles, where the passengers sit, has a roof, but is open on the sides, and passengers can jump on and off the back, then squeeze in to sit on one of the two long benches lining the sides. The vehicles are either shiny aluminum, or gaily painted, or have pictures on them, or are some combination of the above. They have spare tires bolted onto the side, near the driver. I have no idea how the drivers make money, since I didn’t see anyone paying to get on or off them, and neither do I have the slightest idea how the riders know where they’re going, since I can’t imagine these things follow set routes. I suppose I could look this up on the Internet, but some mysteries are best left mysterious.
Don’t believe the taxi drivers. Assuming you don’t want to take the Filipino version of a tuk-tuk (they are pretty dangerous, in fact), then you’re going to end up in a taxi. While as a whole I find Filipinos honest, pleasant, and helpful, this does not necessarily apply to the taxi drivers. Your taxi driver is very likely to flatter you by telling you look like some improbable movie star, and then explain that he needs 10,000 pesos to get his mother / wife / child / brother into / out of the hospital / army / navy before Christmas / Easter / it’s too late. This gives you 36 different possible stories (ranging from “I have to get my child into the hospital before it’s too late” to the less common “I have to get my mother out of the navy before Easter”). Filipino taxi drivers are not alone in this, but since they all speak perfect English you may be somewhat more subject to intricate bullshit than would otherwise be the case.
OK, so I’m no expert on Manila, I admit it, but there are a few quick observations for you in case you find yourself in that part of the world. And, of course, you now know the right way to eat boiled duck embryos.