In the Philippines, a balut reaches its state of gustatory perfection at seventeen days old. At that stage the creature within has yet to form its beak. Its claws, bones and feathers also remain undeveloped.
That differs considerably from the Vietnamese, who like them older nineteen to twenty-one days old, to be precise. By then, the balut, a duck embryo cooked in its own shell and served warm, has a pleasant crunch concealed within its tender flesh. Its beak has begun to develop, and even its little webbed feet are beginning to look ducky.
I've never had occasion to try balut not out of any lack of will on my part, but out of balut scarcity. You see, there's not much of a U.S. market for the things.
So imagine my anticipation as I unwrapped my first Oriental King Preserved Duck Eggs.
Wrapped like the rarest of truffles in a chilled Styrofoam box, each Oriental King Preserved Duck Egg is further protected from the threatening world with an individual plastic wrapping. Once fully unsheathed, an Oriental King Preserved Duck Egg reveals itself to be a taupe orb of speckled beauty.
But physical beauty, like downy ducklings, cannot last. So, palming the cool egg, I firmly crush its shell on a countertop. Rolling the encased duckling between Formica and palm, I methodically break its shell into a thousand pieces, before pinching the tip and shelling the duckling in a single continuous sheath.
What's beneath? Well, an Oriental King Preserved Duck Egg looks just like a hard-boiled chicken egg only dyed a shiny obsidian black.
Filipinos often enjoy their balut with a smidgen of salt and a dash of vinegar. Unencumbered as I am by tradition, I've opted instead for the juice of a key lime that I'm hoping will tart things up a bit.
After squeezing a dash of lime over my egg, I slip it, Cool Hand Luke-style, into my mouth, clamp down and wait for the crunch.
But it never comes.
Apparently, Oriental King Preserved Duck Eggs are not baluts at all. They are the delicacy's unfertilized cousin: the hard-boiled duck egg.
Pregnant with a gray yolk that's impossibly large, once bitten the Oriental King Preserved Duck Egg quickly dissolves into a jaw-stopping sludge. The egg white (or, in this case, the egg black) is a slip of a thing, with about as much stage presence as a shrub.
The egg is not so good. Then again, it's not so bad, either.
But as I gum my way through the yolk and push its slurry down my throat, texture and flavor barely register on the palate. Instead, the primary competing sensations are relief and disappointment and I'd be hard pressed to say which wins.