Don’t be Scared to Eat Street Food

Good news! Street food trucks and carts are as safe or safer than their brick-and-mortar restaurant counterparts, reports a recent study done from 260,000 food-safety inspections in seven US cities by the Institute for Justice, “Street Eats, Safe Eats.”

Excellent news for Boston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Louisville, Miami, Seattle and Washington, D.C.!

But what about the rest of us? And what about eating street food when traveling abroad? Is that street food safe? Is it RISKY BUSINESS?  Continue reading

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Balut, a new kind of Easter egg

I’ve never celebrated Lent and the Easter season in the Philippines. Maybe next spring, perhaps.

Many of my Facebook cohort in past days debated about and questioned the origin of Christian Easter symbols and traditions popular in the United States like eggs, egg hunts, dying Easter eggs in pastel palettes and Easter bunnies. I’d heard long ago – thanks, Catholic school – that the egg symbolizes the tomb of the savior because of its illusion of inanimate that springs to life in a few weeks. (Basically the symbols and traditions of Easter can be traced to pagan rituals of spring, fertility and sex. Links to follow.)

Can I ask some fun-loving Filipino or Filipino American parents, in the spirit of tomorrow’s April Fools’ Day, to please hide a few lavender- or pink-dyed balut in their children’s Easter egg hunts today?

What are balut, you ask?

Balut are boiled duck embryos incubated to a partial maturity of 17 to 22 days, depending on how “done” you like them. They are a Filipino delicacy, sometime rite of passage or aphrodisiac, should claims of the last-mentioned are to ever be believed.

The common way I’ve heard balut placed in the context of cuisine for Westerners goes like this: If we eat eggs – scrambled, over easy, hardboiled… what’s known as “the regular way” – and we also conversely eat mature chickens, let’s imagine a timeline connecting the egg stage and the chicken stage, during which the balut/embryo stage falls. If we eat what’s at the beginning and end of this continuum or timeline of a chicken, why not  eat everything in between, too? That argument may or may not fly for you.

Depending on one’s taste for “doneness,” a consumer chooses a younger or older balut. The older the balut, the more mature the embryo is: firmer formed bones, beak and feathers. From the duck hatchery, street vendors buy batches of embryos and cook them at home. What the vendors boil the balut in – clean water, vinegar, soy sauce, or any flavorings – is what distinguishes one’s product.

Manila street food, day old chick

Day old chick, deep-fried.

In my research for Street Food Around the World, I had my first balut this summer. It’s incredulous to me that I managed to dodge consuming the most infamous of Filipino food for this long. A few bottles of San Miguel Cerveza Negra and an easy drinking pitcher of a Malibu-infused concoction named Weng Juice at a Pittsburgh Steelers fan bar in Malate, we stumbled out to our local neighborhood balut cart. For my lack of videography skills and in the interest of time, I’ll post the profanity-laden video later, if I can get sign off from the other parties involved and figure out how to delete my expletives. Street traffic goes by, my companions get propositioned by the “ladies of the night,” and you’ll see what a balut face looks like (mine).

“Don’t look at it” was the balut-eating advice echoed by all. I second this, and add “Don’t smell it or smell your hands afterward.”

Balut. Photo credit: Julia Thiel, Chicago Reader.

Now wouldn’t it be simply memorable (read: possibly traumatizing) for your child to find  and open one of these Easter eggs, with our fine feathered friend here, disguised cleverly in Paas, in place of chocolates or Jolly Ranchers? As far as I can tell, balut have nothing to do with the way with Easter is celebrated today in the Philippines.

I’ve heard it said on numerous occasions that the Filipino brand of Catholicism can be unique, and I think that’s because the sacred and profane are mixed. That’s one way to think of it. Another way: pre-Christian, pre-colonial spiritual traditions provide the (strong) undercurrent for the Roman Catholic faith floating on the surface. Much of the Western press covering the Philippines now have published stories and images of the ritual of some Filipino Catholics to crucify themselves, with five-inch nails, in honor of the Easter holiday. This article, published yesterday by the Toronto Sun from Reuters’ Michaela Cabrera, depicts the scene as “carnival-like.” That’s not really saying much, as other Filipino religious holidays are filled with exuberant displays of food, ceremony, pageant and decoration.

Man crucified for 27th time on Good Friday. Photo credit: Romeo Ranoco, Reuters

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What is Your Favorite Filipino Street Food?

It’s Manila. Early 1980s, July, rainy season.

We’re looking for the best air-con bus tickets up to Baguio. In the narrow, muddy margins between the thoroughfare busy with jeepneys, taxis and tricycles and the terminals’ tall confines, we navigate with our belongings through the bus company stretch of Cubao. Metro Manila – the part outside Intramuros, which is to say, everything else – lacked urban planning or zoning so there’s no sidewalk. I imagine the National Capitol Region grew barrio by barrio, one squatter’s village, Iglesia ni Christo, wet market and fly-over at a time.

This is how my first memory of street food begins.

We endured hours of pre-voyage preparation, now exhausted in our green velour seats. We were somewhere between sleep and looking at the melange of Metro Manila give way to the countryside sari-sari sotres, basketball courts filled with flip-flopped footed hopefuls and children in crisp uniforms walking to school.

On the road to Baguio, we make a few stops at the bigger towns. In San Fernando, some travelers leave, others join. But each time a collection of enterprising food vendors approach the bus, sometimes boarding to walk through the aisles, or circling the bus with their wares piled high on their heads, tapping each window to entice hungry voyagers. Mani, mani, mani, mani! says the peanut vendor. Baluuuuuuut! proclaims the duck egg embryo seller. Fanta and Coca-cola and tsitsaron in knotted plastic baggies, all ready for travelers on the go.

This was before street food was considered by folks in the States as sexy or au courant. Street food in the Philippines is what people in a rush eat – whether it’s for students on the University of the Philippines campus or for the majority of the country’s population who need a hot, inexpensive form of subsistence as they pass their local wet market.

I’m happy to announce I’ll be going back to Manila for a few weeks to work on the Philippines’ chapter of a new book that will be published late this year, Street Food around the World: An Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. I’m researching popular street foods, the people who produce the food and their methods, as well as where and how they’re eaten and by whom. Any Filipinos or Filipino food lovers want to share their opinions, thoughts, recommendations and memories of Street Food Sa Atin?