Pythagoras supposedly condemned the eating of meat, which shared with animal sacrifice the immoral stain of bloodshed. The Jains of India go further: for them, all eating is violent—plants are also living—and sallekhana, or fasting to death, is the noblest path. Violence is not the only ethical concern that has occurred to people worried about eating: Zoroastrians were forbidden to eat food prepared by nonbelievers because of its moral pollution, and probably many of the dietary restrictions of the Old Testament can be interpreted in a similar way. Some moral compulsions about eating are so specific to cultural conditions that they are nearly impossible for outsiders to interpret at all: some ancient peoples of India considered it taboo to eat chicken, while many Indians and Nepalese today will not eat beef.
Given the near ubiquity about these worries about food, Filipinos, especially Kapampangans, can seem like a joyously liberated lot. The Kapampangans delight in every bit of the pig’s body, eating not only its flanks and limbs, but also its face and intestines (sinsal). They seem to eat nearly everything. Stuffed frogs and fried crickets are popular with them as well.
While I lack the conviction to be a vegetarian, I do not quite enjoy the gustatory free-spiritedness of the Filipino. I generally avoid pork, since pigs seem to be extraordinarily sensitive, afraid of death, and intelligent. When a reviewer on Yelp (who may have been Filipino, it must be noted) enjoined readers not to order any of the pork dishes at Renee’s Kitchenette “because pigs are friends, not food,” I was chastened for thinking of ordering a pork dish.
Thus, before my trip to Renee’s Kitchenette, another restaurant with a strong selection of Kapampangan dishes, I diligently researched less troubling alternatives, settling eventually on a seafood version of kare-kare.
Renee’s Kitchenette may be the oldest Filipino establishment in what has become known as “Little Manila” (the stretch of Roosevelt Avenue from roughly 68th to 70th Street), having opened in the early 1990s. It is in the middle of a block bracketed on one by Philippine National Bank and on the other by Krystal’s Café & Pastry Shop, another venerable institution in the Philippine culinary scene. On the sidewalk between Renee’s Kitchenette and Krystal’s Café there is a small stand with a Styrofoam box covered in signs advertising balut. I would have my encounter with balut before the end of the evening, but more on that later.
The interior of Renee’s is festive, with party-themed bric-a-brac hung around the bar and bright posters advertising deserts hung around the dining area. I had read that Renee’s is relatively quiet, having lost the big crowds to its upstart neighbors—but it was packed when I was there, the whole place buzzing with tagalog and tagalog-inflected English.
When I ordered the seafood kare-kare, the waiter smiled approvingly. “Very good dish,” he said. “It comes with shrimp paste!” Naturally, I made him promise the shrimp paste would be safely on the side.
The kare-kare, like the oxtail kare-kare I had last week, came in a deep bowl, filled with squid, mussels, shrimp, eggplants, and spears of vegetables submerged in thick peanut sauce. Like the oxtail kare-kare, it was less spicy than you might expect, but very good. The seafood contributed more flavor than the oxtail, making this the more successful dish.
Since the bagoong (shrimp paste) was there, I tried it again. It may be that all but the simplest tastes are perversions of natural good judgment, acquired through lifetimes of strange culinary accidents. In any case, it is possible to find something to appreciate in the putrefaction of shrimp. Once I became used to the taste, its grip on my tongue made me think of the pleasing toxicity of tobacco or good scotch.
Having conquered, or been conquered by, bagoong, the next step was naturally to try balut. This is a little different, of course. Balut, fertilized duck egg, comes fraught with ethical concerns. Was the embryo conscious when it was killed? How was it killed?
This subject has been much discussed, probably in no small part because balut is popular in countries neighboring Muslim Indonesia, and Muslims cannot eat meat that has been cruelly killed. (The Muslim verdict on this question is that balut is forbidden.)
I did my research beforehand and learned that it is after the 18th day that the embryo has an adequate nervous system to feel pain when it is boiled to death. Yelp reviews of “the balut guy,” as the owner of the cart with balut is known suggest that if you’re averse to a beak and feathers in your egg, you can just ask for balut that is less than 18 days old. So that was what I did, counting on skirting ethical concerns.
My heart dropped when I opened the balut. At a glance, there was no obvious sign of a well-developed chick, but somehow I had stumbled across an inner taboo I had not known existed. Nevertheless, the balut had been purchased, so I bit into it. I encountered a combination of tender meat and amazingly tough egg yolk. My heart kept sinking as I discovered rather well developed chick. I highly doubt the egg was less than 18 days old. But I also do not know if the Muslims are correct to judge that boiling an unhatched fertile egg is cruel, at any stage. Who can say?
6914 Roosevelt Ave
Woodside, NY 11377