Asia: Recipe for digestive disaster

By Derek Cheng

Derek Cheng samples some toe-curling cuisine on the streets of the Philippines and Malaysia.

Durian fruit smells like sewers and tastes like microwaved socks. Photo / Derek Cheng
Durian fruit smells like sewers and tastes like microwaved socks. Photo / Derek Cheng

I didn't know what amniotic fluid was until I ate duck embryo.

Peeling the semi-cooked egg - or balut, as the popular street snack is known in the Philippines - released a stream of warm fluid that caused an involuntary kick in my guts. I let out a groan of unholy disgust as the liquid that usually protects a developing life-form oozed over my palms.

I was later told I was meant to poke a hole in the top of the egg and drink the fluid.

We were in the mountainous part of the northern Philippines, travelling by traditional jeepney - old American war jeeps refitted to become public transport - and had stopped by a street stall for a toilet break. On the side of the road was a white container with "Balut" on the side.

As journalists about-turned in toe-curling revulsion, I flicked the fluid from my fingers and finished peeling. What remained was grotesque: a yin-yang mash of two halves, one half a textured yellow, the other a pale white broken up by leafy waves of blue where feathers were forming.

Queasiness settled in. I sought help.

"How do you eat this?" I asked Johnson, our guide, barely disguising my wish for him to eat some first.

He grabbed a pinch of salt from the table as I broke the balut into the yin and the yang. Johnson took a fingerful of the yellow and opened his gob. When his head didn't explode after a few moments, I followed suit, copying his chewing in the false belief that doing as he did would prevent my head from exploding.

That familiar taste of salty hard-boiled egg. Not bad. And with that revelation, calm as a meditating hermit, I broke the feathery oval into two and tossed my share into my mouth. The texture, like pate. The taste, that generic intestinal livery-ness with a hint of stomach. And salt.

Hardly tasty, but not overpoweringly nauseating.

It was a similar taste to some other local cuisine I had sampled in Manila, the capital. A deep-fried one-day-old baby chicken was actually harder to look at than the embryo. Its shape was not open to interpretation. You couldn't pretend it was anything but a whole baby chicken.

I ate the head and neck first. Tender chicken in crunchy packaging. Would it taste better if the act of eating it was less offensive?

But the rest of the body, while it retained a hint of chicken flavour, had a strong aftertaste of insides and that mildly disturbing texture of, well, insides.

There were other cuisine challenges. Chewing betel nut is a common practice in the Philippines for its apparent ability to make you more alert. All over the countryside are chewers with red gums and eroded teeth.

You cut a nut in half or thirds and wrap it in betel leaf. Add a dab of calcium hydroxide and place in your cheek. Chew, and spit.

Locals told me to expect a mild peppery taste, but it was hard and bitter, and made me feel like I was sucking a tree trunk. That the catalyst is also used for sewage treatment didn't help.

I felt stonkingly alert afterwards, but that may have had more to do with the perilously steep, windy road we were on.

My tastebuds weren't offended again until the streets of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I had had durian before, as small deep-fried pockets, but the chance of fresh durian off the street was too tempting.

What was this King of Fruits with an odour so toxic that "no durian" signs were an essential part of any good hotel foyer?

A durian has a spiky greenish-orange exterior. Inside, it's fluffy and white. A hot, putrid smell attacks the nostrils instantly.

To eat it, you have to pick up the insides while the white goo drips all over your fingers like custard.

The durian left a trail of heat on my tongue, my throat, all through my insides. My whole body objected immediately. Old hiking socks. The kind that have been left under the bed for years and then heated in a microwave.

Drastic times call for drastic measures. I bought two mangos, devouring them and then rubbing the mango stones over my tongue, my mouth, my fingers and hands. It was no use. Durian had left an indelible odour on me.

The sight of people wolfing down durian in the Malaysian heat made me long for the relative comforts of duck embryo.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Malaysia Airlines flies from Auckland to Manila via Kuala Lumpur.

Getting around: Intrepid Travel's Philippine Discovery trip takes 15 days ex-Manila and takes in the landscapes of Banaue, a village trek through lush rice paddies, the mysterious hanging coffins in Echo Valley, a climb to the crater of Mt Pinatubo and an island getaway on Boracay. The price of $2530 includes all accommodation, ground transport and internal return flights to Boracay, some meals and an English-speaking guide.

Derek Cheng went to the Philippines as a guest of Intrepid Travel.

- NZ Herald

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