The story of an egg


Editor’s Note: The following is the third-place winner in the My Marianas Writing Contest of the Northern Marianas Humanities Council. It is being reprinted here at the request of the council. The first- and second-place winning essays were published on June 28 and 29, 2022.

The pavement feels hot on my tsinelas (flip-flops), the hot sun burns through my skin. As I cross the streets of Manila, the loud shouts of titas and ates (aunts, sisters [mainly honorific]) fill the air, enticing you to come buy from their tindahan (store). I hid behind Papa, my small, delicate hand enclosed in his big, rough ones. The death of my aunt was the reason for my visit to the Philippines. This was the first time I had been exposed to my native home, language, and culture. When I was told about the trip, my 5-year-old self didn’t expect this . The smell of sweat, gasoline, and street food filled my nose while my brain debated whether I should look around. Letting my curiosity take over me, I peek out from my Papa’s back, and that moment marks the first time I had ever been curious about my heritage. This was the moment when my brain finally understood the reason why my parents miss their home country so much.

Seeing jeepneys and tricycles, feeling the warm breeze and hot sun, hearing the shouts of people calling me over to try their paninda (wares), it felt comforting. However, what stood out to me the most was the voice of the man selling balut. It was loud, but not overwhelming, and it had a friendly tone. Turning my eyes toward the vendor, a line as long as a snake is seen. The line is filled with a diverse number of people: old, young, short, all, girls, boys. Confused as to why there’s such a long line, I pull on my Papa’s hand. He bends down to match my height, and I ask, “What is balut, Pa? Why are there so many people there?” A laugh erupts from his mouth, he explains that balut is a fertilized duck egg.My mouth opens in shock. A duck egg? Papa continues on, saying that it’s an embryo that’s a week short of hatching. I was immediately repulsed by the idea, my face contorting into an expression of distaste. While my small brain tries to process everything, I notice my dad has left my side. Panic fills my body and suddenly my blood runs cold. Anxiety rises to my stomach and I feel sick, where did he go? I turn and look around in concern, on the verge of tears. My name is called, and there is Papa, lining up at the balut stand. I exhale in relief and wipe away at my teary eyes. I allow myself to calm down for a few seconds as the warm breeze comes back and my blood warms once again. Wind hits my face as I run to Papa. As I inch closer, the smell of salt and vinegar infiltrates my nose, which I cover in order to try and stop any more odor from coming through my nostrils. Papa exchanges smiles and friendly conversation with the vendor, and it clicks. Although my thought process wasn’t detail-oriented at the time, the feeling of my heart warming at the sight is engraved in my mind. Even with my limited mental capacity, I came to the conclusion that balut isn’t just a food. It’s a staple of Philippine cuisine, a symbol of strength and resilience for people.

Balut means “wrapped” when translated into English.It appears as a regular egg, but don’t let its appearance deceive you. When its shell is peeled, the contents usually surprise those who are not familiar with the dish. Inside, you will find a yellow yolk and a duck fetus. The yolk is what the fetus eats during its developing period. The perfect balut is usually fermented for 17-18 days and has a whitish covering around it. Is your face scrunching with concern yet? For those who haven’t been exposed to the dish, it may seem like a nightmare to consume, however, this unique delicacy has brought families and friends together for many centuries. Since its original introduction by the Chinese in 1885, the dish has weaved through history and is now a signature snack. I used to hate seeing Papa eat balut. When he described it to me that day, I was confused. Why would people eat this? And for a long time, it stayed that way. Until one day, the sight of smiles and laughter being shared over this unique treat changed my perspective.

Picture this, you’re at a Filipino family reunion. The smell of barbecue being grilled and the sound of laughter fill the area. You stick to one corner, wanting to head home and fall into your soft bed. As you look around to observe your surroundings, the view of men holding beers in one hand and balut in the other, women chatting in another area, and kids running around are all overwhelming your senses. The breeze hits your skin as you try at another attempt to find peace. However, that attempt quickly fails due to an interruption. Your tito (uncle), whom you haven’t seen in years, walks up to you, holding a balut in one hand accompanied by a smile on his face. He offers the food to you, and your head shakes in refusal. A sigh erupts from his mouth and the seat beside you is now his. A look is shared between you both, and an awkward silence follows. The corners of your tito’s mouth lifts and you brace yourself, thinking that this will be another “When I was your age” discussion, like it usually is. Except for this occasion. The words that are about to leave him will forever follow me in life.

“I know what you kids think about balut.It doesn’t sound nor look appealing at all. However, this very egg has a great history behind it. Do you ever wonder why it’s named balut? Because translated, it means wrapped, and this simple egg has wrapped millions of Filipinos together in a way that nothing else could.” I look at my tito in confusion, but he continues. “[The] Philippines isn’t exactly a place where people have never experienced poverty. Actually, a lot of the people have had to adapt and create food out of what they already have. Our ancestors learned to make use of every single part of a chicken and to turn common food into their dinner. They were poor, yes, but their inventions were so innovative that it still has an impact on our society today. This balut isn’t just a snack to be paired with beer, it is a symbol of strength and resilience of our culture. It’s a symbol of how tough we Filipinos are. Look around, Honey, don’t you see the smiles of the people around you?” I turned around to look, and there it was, the precious grins of my relatives. Just then, it felt like a revelation. My brain clicked all the puzzle pieces together, and I could imagine it; I could imagine the hardships, struggles, and days of starvation that my ancestors went through. My body turned to my dad, who didn’t have the privilege of wealth in his childhood, and I see him consume the food he learned to eat. On that day, I learned that balut isn’t just a mere food, it’s a comfort, a reminder, and an act of patriarchy to the people of the Philippines.

Now, whenever I hear foreigners become disgusted at my culture’s food, my heart twists. Whenever I hear my friends laughing at their parents for consuming such a dish, I tell them the same story that my tito did many years ago. The knowledge weighs heavy on my shoulders, just like the weight of the world that Atlas carries on his, and at any chance given, I remind those who lack the understanding that balut is a comfort and a taste of nostalgia. A taste of family and is one of the many beauties from the Philippines. And how it “baluts” the hearts of people together.

Honey June Satur (Special to the Saipan Tribune)

Honey June Satur (Special to the Saipan Tribune)
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