By Nicolo Nasol
“Naa kay eighteen diha, ki?” —Anonymous
I WALKED along the polluted sidewalk downtown where there lay a stretch of street food stalls that habitually begins to grow crowded at the first stroke of twilight. People who just got off from school and work found themselves feasting on the delicacies to relieve their hunger and nerves, sometimes while enjoying a conversation with an acquaintance or a friend, mostly exchanging summaries or anecdotes on how their day went.
Passing by, I could hear peals of laughter, as incessant as the sizzling of food in the scalding oil, and even belches of people whose stomachs were gratified right after big gulps of their beverage of choice, often followed by the lighting of cigarettes.
I looked with astonishment at the burning cigarettes, for their tips stood out perfectly, like crimson stars, between the moonlight and the glares coming from the headlights congested in the road.
The greasy savor in the air suddenly rendered me famished, but somehow absolved me from the whole day of earthly labors.
I was well into my fourth piece of penoy when a group of foreigners lined by the stall I was in. The crowd threw glances at them.
The five foreigners, three men and two women, whom I thought were Americans, look exhausted, out of breath, undoubtedly from carrying huge backpacks, bags, tents, and rolled sleeping mats. Nevertheless, I saw excitement gleaming from their faces; their eyes were of those beholding the arrival of a long-awaited meal.
At once, I reckoned that the foreign group must have heard myths about balut and that now they were going to unfold its mystery; one of them confirmed it by saying he found “The Balut.”
The men declared to draw first blood, while the women backed them up with cheers.
I listened to the vendor stuttering his way in giving instructions. He guided them through gestures — like pointing at a certain part of the shell — and managed to convey the instructions with precision.
I was surprised at how the men devoured the embryo in an instant, perhaps without even tasting, and certainly without spitting the bits of bones and hairs out; regardless, they expressed delight at its tastiness.
The women’s applause caught the attention of the busy crowd. It was their turn next. But no sooner had they peeled the shells than they backed down at the sight of the embryo.
As though spectators in a show, passersby circled around the stall and cheered the women on.
“Chicken abortion!” I broke in. People, including the foreigners, turned and laughed at my remark; a student even repeated, “Di ta mokaon ani uy, kay chicken abortion.”
One of the women stopped laughing and asked me, “What happens if no one eats them?”
“They’re thrown away,” I said rather coldly. “The reason they’re ‘aborted’ is because the farms here can’t afford to raise them. So even if they were to live, they’d eventually die of starvation. Besides, no one can shelter all of them, and they’d be a nuisance if they’re too many.”
The crowd, I realized, was silent and listening to me the whole time, perhaps never expecting such an insight on the matter.
“Balut,” I continued, “is actually a solution to poultry overpopulation.”
I lit my fourth cigarette while walking into the heart of the downtown, which I fancied to be pumping the traffic of strangers and vehicles into the streets.
The evening declined, and I looked at the moon glowing brighter beyond the rise of the buildings, the sight of it misted by the smoke coming out of my mouth.
I stood on the street corner, listening to the cacophony of wheels, horns, footsteps, and gossips, when a strange memory involving balut sprang into mind:
Once, a sallow balut vendor, who was my “suki” since he was just across the street near my home, confided to me about hearing death rattles of full-grown embryos from inside their shells as he boiled them in his large pot.