Back in Australia for the holidays, I was sent on a mission to find balut. Filipino migrants must crave a taste of home from time to time, and I discovered that balut is produced in Canberra and Sydney, where there are large Filipino communities. Yet anyone I spoke to in Adelaide seemed wary about sharing their sources. One Filipina restaurant owner was ‘too shy’ to give me her supplier’s details, another bluntly denied any knowledge of its existence. Whether this was professional discretion or fear of repercussions from an unsympathetic public, I couldn’t decide, but everyone seemed remarkably tight-lipped. Despite the secrecy, I eventually found that it is possible to buy balut in select Asian groceries and restaurants, you just have to know where to look.
Another thing I discovered is that this Filipino delicacy is popular throughout South East Asia. China Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam all have their own version of balut, and the age of the embryo is a matter of local preference. It’s called khai luk in Thailand, máodàn in China, pong tea khon in Cambodian and hột vịt lộn in Vietnam, but most Westerners know it by its Filipino name. Balut was probably introduced to the Philippines by Chinese traders and immigrants and has since been indigenized by Filipino balut makers or mangbabalut.
Mention balut, and you will conjure up a range of facial expressions from squeamish repulsion to lip-licking relish. Recently, there has been a spate of sensationalized reality TV shows in which participants are inevitably shocked and disgusted by the concept of devouring a boiled duck embryo. Balut seems to be a cultural hurdle most westerners are unwilling to leap.
I have never eaten balut, and I thought I never would. I, too, could not get my head around balut, as Filipinos cannot understand why Australians love Vegemite (that black, salty, yeast extract spread that looks like axel grease disguised as chocolate paste) or would eat kangaroo. Yet, in theory, surely eating balut is not so different from eating roast duck?
One Vietnamese shop owner described how to eat balut Vietnamese style: cooked in soup seasoned with fresh herbs, salt and pepper, or eaten with a pinch of salt and pepper, lemon juice and Vietnamese mint leaves (southern Vietnamese style).
In Cambodia, balut is eaten while still warm in the shell and served with nothing more than a simple mixture of lime juice and ground pepper. A similar preparation, with a slightly older embryo, is known in China as máodàn: literally “feathered egg”.
In the Philippines, balut is seasoned with any combination of salt, chili, garlic and vinegar. The broth around the embryo is sipped from the egg before the shell is peeled off, and then the yolk and young chick inside can be eaten in one mouthful. I have seen balut cooked adobo style in Salcedo Market, and apparently it can also be cooked into omelettes or even used as a filling in baked pastries. One of these days, I thought, I will conquer my cultural aversion and ‘give it a go!’
Today was the day, as it turned out. Returning from the beach with my family, we drove along Hanson Road, renowned for its selection of Asian groceries. A tip-off from an Australian grocer with a Vietnamese wife found us talking to Yen, the owner of a Vietnamese restaurant five minutes down the street. Apparently we could buy balut at the neighbouring Chinese grocery store and she would cook it for us.
Three eggs duly acquired, we sat down to wait. Two local workmen were eating lunch at the next table, one of whom initially seemed willing to be my ‘guinea pig’ and sample the balut for me. Further details, however, had him sliding surreptitiously – and speedily – out of the restaurant.
A Cambodian/Australian family was seated at another table. Lee agreed that balut was not unique to the Philippines, but was popular throughout SE Asia, especially in China where, she told me, laughing, there is a saying: “Anything on legs, eat it!” Lee and her three children really like balut. She warned me, however, that it is very high in protein, so people with high cholesterol levels should be careful. “I never eat more than three,” she admitted.
I told her how I had had trouble finding out where to buy balut; that some store owners were very cautious about divulging information. “They are probably worried it is illegal,” she explains, “and that you may be trying to shut down their business.” Ah-ha!
Yen, the restaurant owner, brought out the condiments to accompany a hard-boiled quail egg she wanted me to try as an hors d’oeuvre. Rolling it in salt and pepper soaked in lemon juice, I pop it into my mouth, breathing a sigh of relief that it didn’t contain an embryo.
An older Vietnamese lady sat down nearby and watched as our three eggs came to the table. I asked if she would like to share one with us. She accepted with alacrity, cracking and peeling the shell away, before dipping in eagerly with a teaspoon. We watched fixedly.
Then it was our turn. My father adamantly refused to participate, while my nine year old niece explained very quickly that she “is allergic to duck.” Three nights before my son and I had watched queasily as Australian DJs, Hamish and Andy, vomited their way through balut in the backstreets of Manila, to cries of “Eat the beak! Eat the beak!” So I was impressed when my fifteen year old decided, with a wry grin, to accept the challenge. Determined to follow his lead, my mother and I also decide to give it a go.
Yen showed us what to do. Cracking the top of the egg with a teaspoon, she presented us with a dark, marbled, slightly murky surface, not at all like the white of your average egg. “Don’t look the first time” she advised. We passed the egg cup round the table, each of us extracting a small mouthful with a spoon. It tasted more or less the same as boiled duck, which may not be my favourite flavour, but was certainly not offensive. A second mouthful, followed by a leaf of spicy Vietnamese basil, was actually quite pleasant. While we all agreed we couldn’t eat the whole egg, it had all been a bit of an anti-climax.
I decided, then, to experiment with the third egg, as we needed to see this duckling properly. Like a science experiment, my son and I cracked open the last egg and peeled back the shell, revealing veined egg yolk wrapped around a dark, meaty shape like a fist. Unfolding this with our spoons, I suddenly found myself staring into the accusing eyeball of a tiny duck head attached to a thin neck, formed as if from clay, and smaller than I had imagined.
At the end of the day, we realized, eating this challenging snack is less about taste and more about cultural expectations and what is in your head. It was the thought of eating a partially formed duckling that made all of us a little queasy, even after we realized that it actually tasted no different to boiled duck.
I am euphoric at hurdling over the cultural barrier and finally eating balut. I feel I have earned my stripes as a temporary resident in the Philippines, but I doubt I will ever do it again. In future I will leave balut to those who find it truly irresistible!
Adapted from an article published in COOK: connecting foodies, Vol. 14, No. 5.
With thanks to Google Images for the top photo.