Over the Labor Day weekend, Anissa Helou, the great curator of Arab cuisine, flew from her home in London for a few days stay in New York City before setting out to deliver a talk on food in Ohio. She wanted to have Korean for lunch on Monday so she called her friend Bobby Ghosh, the editor of TIME magazine’s international editions, who then consulted me. I responded with my usual recommendation: Kumgangsan on West 32nd Street. It may not be the absolute tastiest in the city but it’s better than most. It’s also quite the sight. And best of all, it’s open 24/7, a perpetual palace of kitschy and culinary pleasure.
There is much to contemplate even before you get to the food. The visitor can gawk at the way the split-level restaurant has been transformed into floor-to-ceiling grottoes and caves. Kumgangsan means Mount Kumgang, a real mountain in what is now North Korea which used to be home to several important Buddhist monasteries. Kumgang is the usual translation for the Sanskrit word “vajra”—which means both diamond and thunderbolt—and is a potent symbol of the way Buddhist enlightenment can slice into your consciousness to let you see through the illusions of human existence. The Diamond Sutra (or Kumgang Kyong), the origins of which are lost in time, declares that what we cling to as incontestable truths are really like a dewdrop slipping off a leaf or a momentary bubble in a rushing river, the flicker of candlefire turning to smoke, a lighting flash, a ghost’s shadow, a passing dream.
Still, I’m not sure what all that has to do with the gleaming white grand piano sitting on a cliff overlooking the downstairs dining room. Maybe, the sound of one hand clapping for an invisible piano player?
But who wants to think of Nirvana when the reality that hits you in Kumgangsan is one that transforms flesh and blood and garlic and cabbage into kalbi and pajeon and japchae and kimchi?
Helou herself is a delight: effervescent, not bubbly, an elegant stream of conversation not a fount of froth. She is both curious and fearless about the proliferation of banchan piling up around us, the multitudinous side dishes of sprouts and variations on tofu and stewed vegetables and fish and kimchi that are the prelude to a Korean feast. She savors everything with a subtle but sure method, unobtrusively asking for the plates and chopsticks to be changed at certain points (at a faster rate than such restaurants usually do) to keep the flavors from intruding on each other. It is a practiced deftness in the difficult art of gastronomic discrimination. She wants her observations untrammeled; she wants as much clarity as possible from and about the dish at hand.
Death must intervene in order for us to eat and live on.
I mentioned that I’d just come back from Copenhagen and the MAD Symposium there. She asked what I thought of its grand finale: the public beheading of a chicken after the audience had been asked—thumbs up, thumbs down in gladiatorial style—whether to let the animal live or die. I said that I got the point: that death must intervene for some in order for the rest of us to eat and live on. She nodded but said it was odd to make such a spectacle of something so quotidian as killing a chicken, something her female relatives did as part of culinary routine. I felt a little ashamed at enjoying the MADness and made some flabby comment that when men decide to do what women are tasked with, the same act takes on herculean proportions. It was not exactly the freshest take on the difference between male and female chefs. She did not press the matter further.
For a while, the talk over lunch (which included Bobby’s wife Bipasha and Anissa’s friend Anna, a journalist) revolved around restaurants—the cycles of popularity even the great ones suffer from (what I call the wheel of culinary karma); her current haute favorites (including Ben Shewry’s Attica in Melbourne, Australia; and Magnus Nilsson’s Faviken in the middle of Sweden); and the compact new place she has started in London, Koshari Street, where she transforms the working class Egyptian rice-and-lentils dish into contemporary takeaway. But for some reason—perhaps because I interjected my Filipino background into the conversations—we drift into the whys and hows of eating balut, an overdeveloped duck embryo whose particulars I will reveal shortly. It turns out that Helou, elegant and effervescent, is fascinated by the idea balut, and asks asked if the delicacy is available in New York. The answer, of course, is yes.
There is something brutal about consuming an egg that is close to hatching into a duckling.
I hesitate to use the word delicacy with balut because there is something brutal about consuming an egg that may be quite close to hatching into a duckling. But how much more brutal is it than beheading a bird that has actually hatched and grown to maturity and must then be plucked and gutted before being dismembered and eaten?
The practice is not uncommon in the rest of Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam and Cambodia. There is one theory that it may have originated from a belief that eggs that have not been quickened by the “magic” process of hatching were somehow dangerous—or not as nutritious. It could have also evolved from the Chinese process of curing so-called 1,000-year old eggs. In any case, balut is an important source of protein, calcium and other nutrients for the impoverished classes in the Philippines.
I must admit that once I was too frightened to eat balut, leaving it to my sisters to tell me all about the wonders of the experience. But then I finally plucked up my courage and had one. Then another. And another. The last time I had balut was last month on a beautiful beach in the middle of the Philippines. Local boys were hawking balut, fresh and boiling hot, accompanied by little plastic packets of rock sea salt. To savor balut at its gustatory peak, have it around 17 days after fertilization. You crack the pointier end of the egg, peel off the top. There is nothing eggy and soft about the interior. It is solid and substantial. You cannot get around the fact that you are about to eat an unhatched duckling. It is a paradoxical kind of clarity: the simultaneous experience of gut fear and epicurean anticipation.
It is a delicious mouthful, the bones and bill too soft to get in the way of enjoyment.
Begin with the liquid, which rises to the top and is like the most delicate and deepest of duck broths; add a few grains of salt to bring out even more of the flavor. The taste suffuses most of the rest of the contents too, gaining complexity with the tenderness of the duckling itself and the richness of the yolk (I choose to discard the tough white albumin, which usually settles at the rounder bottom of the egg; some people consume it but it is a chore and does not reward the effort). It is a delicious mouthful, the bones and bill too soft to get in the way of enjoyment. It may be compared to a now banned practice in France: the eating of ortolan, the tiny songbirds that French fatten and roast and then, sans feet but with head intact, pop whole into their mouths. The birds are now endangered and eating them is illegal. Balut is much more sustainable: ducks are plentiful and all you have to do is boil the eggs and add salt.
As usual, Helou is methodical about wanting to cut through the clutter and get clarity about the phenomenon. The day after our lunch at Kumgangsan, she emails to ask if balut is seasonal or if enough eggs could be available at various stages of development at the same time for a balut tasting. I tell her that in the Philippines it would be no trouble doing so but there isn’t as much demand in New York so it could be complicated arranging for a tasting that would encompass the range of fertilization. But it’s worth trying the next time she is in town.
So maybe there is a kind of magic in the fake cliffs and caves of Kumgangsan on 32nd Street. Where else could you have a discussion of high and low gastronomy with an expert on Middle Eastern cooking except for a Korean restaurant in the middle of Manhattan named for a Buddhist holy mountain now ruled by Kim Jong Un with a piano hanging over your heads? Incongruities can melt into delight—and duck embryos can become delicacies.