(This story has fairly graphic descriptions of food that might not be so appealing to some.)
I’m not a natural story teller. Whenever it comes time to swap stories during a party, I always seem to be afflicted with an oddly specific case of amnesia that causes me to instantly forget anything interesting that has happened in my life. I’m left grasping at straws while the conversational momentum moves on to someone with a better handle on their past. Although I’ve tried to get better at this over the years, there will still be moments where my pre-prepared menu of stories will very inconsiderately tiptoe out of the wide-open backdoor of my mind.
However, there is one question that I always have an answer for.
What is the worst thing you have ever eaten?
To answer this, we’ll have to step a few years back. About six, to be precise.
I was eighteen at the time, in Vietnam. Aside from a few brief, barely-remembered steps outside of the country in Mexico and Canada, this was my first real “foreign” travel experience. And I was in completely over my head.
In the summer after I graduated high school, I had agreed to go to Vietnam along with my friend Jimmy and his family, who are Vietnamese themselves and make semi-regular trips back to visit relatives. It was something we had talked about for quite some time, probably since we were in eighth grade or so. During a chance conversation during our last year in high school, I happened to ask him if his family was, by chance, making the trip this summer. When he said that they were, I asked if I could tag along, and the rest is history.
Fast forward to the third week in the one-month trip. After a couple bouts with food poisoning, a nasty respiratory illness-slash-reaction to motorbike exhaust, and more hangovers cured by bowls of pho than I’m comfortable admitting, I was starting to fill in the shoes of a somewhat-seasoned traveler. I had adopted the ubiquitous south east Asian uniform of flip flops, shorts, and tank top, along with the scruffy face and bloodshot eyes worn by a majority of travelers in the region.
If you’ve spent time around Vietnamese people, you probably know that they can be quite festive. They, as much as anyone else, love a good party. One of our friends who spent some time travelling with us regarded them, endearingly, as “Asia’s Latinos”, and I’m sure there are many who would agree. It seems to take little justification to pick up a few cases of Heineken, pull up some plastic stools around some good food, and have a great time.
Even though I was only there for a month, it seems like I experienced much more than a month’s worth of similarly styled pop-up parties, and I’m sure my liver bears their physical evidence to this day. This evening during the penultimate week looked to be more of the same. As part of a comfortable routine by now, we set up shop in the street, paying little heed to the occasional motorbike that had to weave by in order to accommodate us. Several (I assume) neighbors and acquaintances gradually filtered in to join us. Time soon became an abstract concept, quantified only by the growing pile of Heineken cans beneath the table.
At some point in the evening, I found myself having a (roughly translated) conversation with one of the men who had joined us. Who he was exactly, I don’t remember, and I strongly doubt that I was aware of it at the time either. These days, I like to think to myself that nobody knew who he was, that he just happened to be walking by us at some point and decided that we needed help attending to the vast quantity of beer that we had acquired. Refrigeration in these parts of the world is quite expensive, and this benevolent soul was just doing his part to make sure that we weren’t unnecessarily storing any leftovers.
During our conversation, this new acquaintance seemed to get very excited about something, and then proceeded to hop on his motor scooter and dart off into the night. A bit confused, I asked my friend who had been my informal translator, as he had been on every other night like this. “Oh. He said that there was a ‘delicacy’ or something from the market that he wanted you to try.” I’m not sure if I really comprehended this or not, but soon my attention drifted back to more heated conversations around the table that I had no ability to understand.
Soon enough (Was it soon? It could have been an hour. How far away was this market, anyways?), he returned, this time with a few small, clear, plastic bags. One contained two eggs, the aforementioned delicacy, one of which he handed to me, along with a little bag of rock salt, placed on the table in between us.
Now, balut isn’t a Vietnamese word, and before this, I didn’t know what balut was. In fact, I had no idea what it was until someone explained it to me until I had been home for quite some time. Let me briefly tell you what it is, if you happen to have not had the good fortune to come across it before.
On the outside, balut looks as most eggs would. However, as with many things, its what on the inside that counts, and there’s more than meets the eye with these eggs in particular. Balut is an egg, most commonly duck, that has been fertilized and allowed to develop for a certain period of time, between fourteen and twenty-one days according to local preference. It is then boiled and served with a sprinkle of salt, and allegedly best accompanied by beer.
Once I cracked into what I previously assumed was just an abnormally small hardboiled egg, I realized that fate had something else in store for me that night. If I had been slightly less intoxicated, I probably would have hit the brakes right there. Staring back at me was a sight I still shudder at. Perhaps I should consider myself fortunate, as this particular specimen was, well, lets call it less developed than it could have been. However, to my uninitiated and intoxicated self, it seemed like I had cracked open some sort of demon offspring.
Ever had a soft-boiled egg before? Imagine that, at least on a consistency or textural basis. Just substitute in some vein-like structures running up and down the length of the interior, along with an off-color mass of brown and gray in the center. It’s not exactly your typically pleasing yellow egg yolk, to say the least. I queasily looked up at the provider of this hospitality, who was smiling and demonstrating how to properly salt the egg. Delicacy.
Now that I look back on it, I think not eating the egg could have been a viable option. However, at that moment, in my mind, I had crossed the point of no return as soon as that man had first hopped on his motorbike. To me, you just can’t say no when someone is offering you what is to them and their culture, especially when they went through some lengths to acquire it, specifically for you. Not that this made what I was about to do any more appetizing, though. However, with the aid of a bit of determination and a bit of liquid courage, I made my way through, bite by runny bite. I can’t remember if my face, or reactions in general, betrayed the battle that I was fighting internally to make it through, but at some point, I finished it, and that’s what matters.
After this, the rest of the night fades off into obscurity.
The next morning, I awoke in a sweat. Something did not feel right. My skin was cold and clammy, my head was awash in waves of piercing beer-hangover pain, and my stomach felt like what I imagine it would feel like just before a young xenomorph burst forth from an unfortunate space traveler. To this day I can’t think of a much better way of describing in besides being akin to having a demon inside of me. The waves of nausea that had already picked up gave me that handy, unmistakable biological signal that I was thirty or so seconds away from emptying the contents of my stomach in a not-so-gentle manner.
I sprung up from my mattress on the floor, or at least as fast as one could spring up with my muscles inundated with hangover rigor mortus, and shuffled to the bathroom, my bare feet slapping upon the cold tile. As is typical with pretty much any scenario involving vomit, I made it to the toilet with mere seconds to spare, and instantly retched out the contents of my stomach with a force that I have, unfortunately, been unable to replicate to this very day. I’ll spare you the additional fine details, but this is one of the few times in my life where the term “splashback” could be used.
After the event was concluded, I spread myself on the floor for a few moments to collect myself. I felt, for the most part, better. Shortly after I returned to bed and quickly fell back asleep.
Some things deserve a second chance, but I think for me, as long as balut is concerned, once is enough.