Looking Back

How to eat ‘balut’

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“Taiyaki” is a Japanese snack related to our hopia or mongo roll. It is a small cake in the form of a fish filled with sweet, dark mongo. Taking the first bite of a taiyaki depends on gender: Men start at the head of the fish, women start at the tail.

How people do things differs from place to place. When Pinoys slice and eat a mango, do they start at the sweet pointed tip, the not-so-sweet bottom, or the center, and work their way up? We crack a balut from the round part of the egg rather than the pointed tip, to form a small cup, the better to sip the “soup” before dissecting the duckling. Growing up, my sisters and I fought over the balut soup, which was everyone’s favorite, then we took our respective parts: I got the sisiw or chick, one sister got the “yellow” or yolk, and the youngest got the bato, which is normally discarded or fed to an appreciative pet under the table.

The rituals of eating are so common we hardly notice them, except when we observe something done differently. A typical Filipino table setting has a plate and glass (both turned down, I guess to avoid dust, and turned up when you sit for the meal), and a spoon on the right of the plate and a fork on the left. Knives are rarely used because Pinoys spear a piece of meat with a fork and bite pieces off or, in the case of children, an adult will use a spoon and fork to cut the food into smaller pieces. A friend had a childhood Chinese amah or yaya who chewed the food for her wards, spat it into a spoon, and fed it to the children! Why their parents allowed this is beyond me. Adults blow on hot soup or food to cool it before feeding a child, but in the West it is considered rude to blow on food.

Noodles are treated differently. In the West you put a fork into a bowl or plate of spaghetti and a spoon at the bottom of the fork, then you twirl and form a mouthful. Sucking a strand of noodle into the mouth with appropriate noise is considered fun and acceptable for children, but not for adults. In China and Japan noodles are served in bowls, often with hot broth, and taken with chopsticks. No twirling here. One catches the steaming noodles with the chopsticks, puts these in the mouth, and slurps it all in. The loud slurping serves to cool the noodles and signals contentment or appreciation.

Filipinos use the spoon both for liquids and solids. This got a Filipino child in a foreign school into trouble because his teacher insisted that a spoon is only for liquids and that he had to learn how to use his fork to put solids in his mouth. This reminded me of Victorian England, where they used a bewildering array of utensils: a spoon, knife, or fork differed in size depending on its use for lunch, dinner, or dessert; a knife and a fork differed in shape according to fish or meat; a soup spoon was round and differed from the normal oval spoon; there were specific spoons for ice cream, coffee, tea, strawberry, melons, etc. The Victorians also came up with special utensils to hold corn on the cob, snails, or a bone that had to be picked for marrow. They even crafted tongs for ice and scissors to cut grapes off the stem. Those were definitely the days before tablets, cell phones, Internet games and porn.

In the 1850s Filipino artist Jose Honorato Lozano painted scenes from daily life with a number of examples showing how our ancestors ate. Most of them ate from a low table around which they squatted on their haunches or used a stool. When were tables introduced in our eating habits? People then ate with their hands or with a spoon. When they ate from the wares of an itinerant pancit or lugao vendor, they used chopsticks and what appear to be Chinese porcelain soup spoons that are still in use today. When Filipinos started using a spoon and a fork is another question I am looking into.

Table etiquette in the late 19th century can be learned from the famous book of manners “Pagsusulatan ng dalauang binibini na si Urbana at Feliza na nagtuturo ng mabuting kaugalian. Kinatha nang Presbitero D. Modesto de Castro.” (Correspondence of two young ladies Urbana and Feliza that teaches good manners. By Fr. Modesto de Castro.) The book is divided into chapters that contain letters from the city girl, Urbana, instructing the country girl, Feliza, on how she and a little boy named Honesto are to act in different social situations. The chapter “Sa piguing” outlines what Honesto is to do and not to do during a party. Children are to be seen and not heard, they should not talk unless spoken to, they should not look around, cough, spit, yawn, or make unnecessary noise or movements. Urbana instructs them on the use of napkins, how to drink from a glass, etc.

These rules originated from European books of manners, but what about other ways of eating? What are the rules about kamayan or eating with the hands aside from washing before and after eating? What are the rules about eating with chopsticks? For example, when picking or serving food, did they use serving chopsticks that have a different color, or did they use the pointed part for eating and the opposite end, the rounded or square part, for picking and serving?

Table rules are often unwritten and we learn as we grow up. Thus, knowing how and why says a lot about who and how Pinoy we are.

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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  • jack ryan

    I sometimes eat with my bare hands or fingers…and I sometimes wonder, bakit napaparami ang kain ko pag naka kamay lang?…hmnnn…

    • Cano Manuel

      Napapaunti ang kain ko when I think about cholesterol.

  • BCon

    The chinese amah thing almost made me puke. I hope I dont remember it next time I eat.

  • riccisan

    before, when i eat balut, i just remove the white hard part and swallow everything. no need to see that duck fetus saying hi to me

  • penoy2012

    When I was very young, my mother taught me to use spoon and fork properly, only to be served whole alimasag. When I asked to be allowed to eat with my hands, she served me bulalo.

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