Monday, November 19, 2012


Warning: This post may not be suitable for vegetarians and for people who prefer to forget the meat on their dinner plates was actually destined to be an animal.

If you're craving a small merienda (Tagalog for snack), you may be tempted to try a Pinoy specialty: balutBalut are sold at semi-permanent roadside stalls or by roaming one-man sellers (the vendors are mostly men) who call out "baaaa-luuuuuut" in loud deep voices every few minutes. The eggs are usually carried in insulated styrofoam containers, about the size of a can of paint. Inside, the eggs are kept hot. The sellers also carry all the accouterments: salt, vinegar and chilies. Some sellers will also carry water and soap so you can wash your hands.
Balut container, chicharon snacks, salt and spiced vinegar
Balut are boiled duck embryos. On the outside, balut look just like hard-boiled eggs. To eat balut, you start by slurping up the 'soup' - the embryonic fluid. Next you peel away the eggshell until only a tiny sliver of shell remains at the bottom. Then, you sprinkle on some spiced vinegar, tilt your head back, pinch your nose and try not to think about what is coming next. Holding the sliver of eggshell, pop the embryo into your mouth and bite. You might be crunching on a beak and feathers, depending on the age of your balut. After the final swallow, you can eat a pinch of salt to slightly change the taste. Alternatively, you can add the salt at the same time as the vinegar.
Looking inside the balut
One of us (not yours truly) tried (albeit reluctantly, and with much goading from yours truly) balut. This is how the culinary adventure transpired.

After our pedicab ride, Goon asked us if we'd tried balut, then offered to have one with us. I politely decline and offer to photograph the experience instead. Frank agrees to partake in a small merienda feast. Goon buys two balut at 25 pesos apiece, then proceeds to explain and demonstrate the process. Of the experience, Frank recounts that "It just tastes like soup, like broth. It's more the texture that's different. The yolk is like biting through hard rubber."
Goon and Frank eating balut
If you're not convinced by the culinary appeal of balut, then perhaps another one of its attributes may convince you: it is a reputed aphrodisiac, and telling locals you've tried it instantly confers street cred.

Bon appétit!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Pedicab tour in Intramuros

One Sunday, F, A and I decide to play tourist and visit Intramuros. Our guide book (The Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget) describes Intramuros as

"the old Spanish capital of Manila [and] the one part of the metropolis where you get a real sense of history. It was built in 1571 and remains a monumental, if ruined relic of the Spanish occupation, separated from the rest of Manila by its crumbling walls. It featured well-planned streets, plazas, the Governor's Palace, fifteen churches and six monasteries as well as dozens of cannon that were used to keep natives in their place. Many buildings were destroyed in WWII but Intramuros sill lays claim to most of Manila's top tourist sights."

The use of motorized vehicles is restricted within the limits of Intramuros, so pedicabs are a popular alternative to cabs, jeepneys ad tricycles (the motorized version, not the ones small children and circus clowns ride). A pedicab is the Pinoy version of a cycle rickshaw. It's a bicycle welded onto a small covered sidecar. It seats two to three passengers comfortably, and is often used to bring passengers short distances. The pedicabs of Intramuros are all painted an olive green colour. The colour almost blends into the historical buildings, a stark contrast to the flashy designs and colours of jeepneys.

After walking around in the sun with a crying baby, we start searching for an alternative way to explore Intramuros. Pedicab drivers have been calling at us since we arrived, "Hello ma'am, hello sir ... historical pedicab tour for only [insert varying sums of pesos]?" We opt to go with Goon. Goon, pronounced 'goo-oon', is a twenty-something pedicab driver-cum-tour guide. Like many Filipinos, Goon has an excellent command of English. He's amicable and outgoing, without being pushy like some of his colleagues. His pedicab is a Mitsubishi, or so says the logo on the front. It's the only adornment that distinguishes Goon's pedicab from the others.

Goon's Mitsubishi pedicab
Goon asks F if he's an actor. He says he is "guapo" (handsome) and looks like Orlando Bloom. (F tells me later that most of the people who have called him guapo are young boys, and that he's looking forward to a member of the fairer sex to pay him that compliment.) Goon tells us that Hollywood actors come through Intramuros relatively frequently. He's taken a few in his pedicab. Most recently, he took the lead actor from the latest Bourne film, which was shot in the narrow streets of Intramuros. The actor even pedaled the pedicab for a short distance.
Street view of one of the chase scenes in the latest Bourne film
The pedicab tour includes stops at:
The Manila Cathedral was first built in 1581 (and later in 1954 and 1958 after it was destroyed by war, typhoons, earthquakes and fire). It's a popular choice for weddings. The giant tarpaulin advertises the Catholic Church's position against the proposed Reproductive Health (RH) Bill.
The ruins of Fort Santiago - former fortress of both Spanish and American colonial powers, and the site where José Rizal (Pilippine national hero) was imprisoned before his execution.
San Augustin Church
To me, the most intriguing part of the experience is Goon's commentary on life in the Philippines. For example, he asks us whether we've ever been to the USA? "Yes," we reply. He laughs, then tells us he lives in the USA, and that he's going to take us there. His USA is the "united squatters area". He makes light of the situation; it seems to be a common cultural trait to infuse humour into otherwise difficult issues. Regardless of how you frame it, the reality is that there are many "USAs" in the Metro Manila Region. The urban poor who inhabit these areas are vulnerable for many reasons; their counterparts in Cagayan de Oro (CDO) will be one of the target populations for my research. So, I pay close attention to our guide's lively chronicling of the history of Intramuros, and especially of the current residents of this USA.
Children play at the outskirts of the "USA"
The pedicab tour turns out to be a wonderful way to while away a few hours, learn about the many incarnations of Intramuros, and glean some insight into its residents, past and present. The tour ends with Goon offering F a Philippine delicacy - balut. More about that experience in another post.