Cracking the Shell: Balut Revealed

Sunday, March 13, 2011 22 comments
Balut a la Pobre

Take a look at any list of the weirdest, funkiest, hell-no-I-won't-eat-that-unless-I'm-on-a-reality-show foodstuff in the world and chances are that balut is at the very top. Few foods provoke such strong reactions as this Filipino snack with a surprise inside, arousing either passionate devotion or abject disgust. But there is much more to eating balut than just a double dog dare. Many consider it a lowly street food, yet it is highly prized as an aphrodisiac. Eating it can signal your membership as a proud Pinoy or bestow an honorary one; it might even turn you into a supernatural creature. So, before you crack open a balut, know that there is a lot going on inside that innocuous eggshell.

A Fertilized Duck Egg by Any Other Name...

Balut is a true street food, meant to be eaten the moment it is handed over by the wandering vendor (magbabalut) whose cries of 'Baaaa-luuuuut' are a clarion call in the early evening. It is a simple food: a fertilized duck egg in which the embryo is allowed to develop for a period of 16 to 21 days before it is boiled for consumption. Its name likely comes from the Tagalog word balot, which means 'to wrap', in reference to how it is made and, perhaps, its handiness as a self-enclosed snack. Although best known as a Filipino specialty, it is also a familiar food throughout Southeast Asia, differing between countries in name and duration of incubation. In Thailand, fertilized duck eggs are called khai khao [1] while in Laos, they are known as khai luk. Whereas the ideal balut is ready at 17 days, the Vietnamese prefer to age their hot vin lon for 19 to 21 days. Similarly, Cambodian pong tea khon ranges from 18 to 20 days old. The relative consistency with which this food is found in various countries points to a shared antecedent, beginning with the Chinese maodan, so-called 'feathered' or 'hairy' egg because of the downy feathers visible in its cooked form [Magat].

Can you see why it's also known as 'feathered egg'?

There is a striking similarity between the methods used to produce balut and another Chinese delicacy known as pei dan, or century eggs. Both involve covering the ovum in clay and rice husks, but whereas the alkaline mixture for pei dan acts as a curing agent, turning the eggs into pungent, dark gelatinous forms [Dunlop], the coating for balut generates necessary heat for the duck embryo to continue developing while the eggs are stored in woven bamboo containers for the requisite time period [Pateros.gov]. This centuries-old process is still followed in the town of Pateros, the historical hub of Philippine balut production, located just a few miles from central Manila.

The Town That Ducks Built

Well before the first Spanish expeditions to the Philippines in the 16th century, Chinese traders had already established settlements in villages within the Laguna de Bay basin on the island of Luzon. The freshwater lake and its tributaries were perfect environments for raising ducks, particularly Mallards (itik), a skill at which the residents of one town were so adept that their small hamlet came to be named for their industry (Tagalog, pato = duck, pateros = duck-raisers) [2]. Coupled with the technique for egg preservation presumably learned from those early Chinese settlers, Pateros' ducks have been laying uniquely golden eggs for centuries.

Photo credit: Jesslee Cuizon
Today, the municipality takes great pride in its history of premier balut-makers (mangbabalut) and their adherence to traditional methods of preparing the eggs by hand. However, Pateros' reputation as the center for balut production is facing a difficult future as the number of its traditional mangbabaluts dwindles and competitors in other towns turn to mechanized incubators capable of large-scale production [Salvador]. Furthermore, unchecked urbanization and runoff from nearby industrial plants have turned the Pateros River from a fertile, healthy environ for raising itiks into a thoroughly polluted, stagnant body of water. Although efforts are underway to clean up the river, it is a sad irony that Pateros mangbabaluts must currently procure their eggs from pateros in other municipalities [Paraiso].

In an Eggshell

No longer able to lay claim to traditional duck-raising and hesitant to convert to modern automation, these celebrated balut-makers have instead chosen to emphasize the superior quality of their traditionally produced eggs. Wrapping balut in clay and rice husks and keeping them warm for a couple of weeks is just one part of the process: each egg must be inspected at three intervals during the incubation period to ensure that the embryo is forming properly and to look for any minute cracks that may affect its quality. Unlike a hard-boiled unfertilized egg, which consists of the egg white (albumen) surrounding a creamy yellow ball of yolk, balut has four distinct parts - the yolk, the albumen (called bato, or 'stone', because it cooks up very firm), the amniotic fluid (sabaw), and the duck embryo (sisiw) [Magat]. All of these parts are edible but the latter two are crucial to perfect balut. Any crack in the shell could result in the evaporation of the sabaw, considered by many to be the tastiest part. But by far, it is the embryo that elicits the most anticipation and reaction.

"Not Regular Egg. Having Baby Inside."
Photo credit: Janet Lackey Schmalfeldt

Balut is categorized based on the length of incubation and development. As mentioned, the ideal duration is 17 days, which produces balut sa puti ('wrapped in white'), referring to a thin membrane covering the interior elements. At this stage, the sisiw is recognizable as a bird, including beak and delicate feathers, but the bones are still soft enough for eating. A balut that did not develop a chick inside is known as penoy and is essentially a hard-boiled egg when cooked, though the yolk is particularly velvety and flavorful. In complete contrast, an abnoy (derived from 'abnormal') is a balut whose embryo died before reaching the requisite days of development. Since nothing should be wasted, abnoy can be made into an omelette or a version of bibingka (steamed rice cake) for a particularly funky-smelling and -tasting delicacy, but the addition of a copious amount of vinegar condiment is highly recommended to save the senses [Davidson]. Don't worry about getting more - or less - than you bargained for: most magbabaluts will mark the eggshell to indicate balut sa puti, penoy or abnoy.

Balut-Eating = Monster-Making?

How and why did eating a recognizable yet underdeveloped fowl still in its shell become a popular foodstuff in the first place? The earliest consumption of fertilized duck eggs may have simply been a matter of chance: eggs were gathered whenever they were found in the wild and it is likely that many already contained embryos, for which people eventually developed a taste [Simoons]. Nutritionally, balut is an excellent source of energy, protein and even calcium, and given its economical price (one egg costs about 20 pesos, or approximately 50 cents), it is an affordable source of nourishment in a country where 30% of the population lives below the poverty line. The lure of cheap, filling food may be reason enough for some Filipinos to overcome some rather unusual doubts they may have about eating balut.

Despite their deeply entrenched Roman Catholic faith, many Filipinos still firmly subscribe to long-held superstitions that touch upon their food choices. According to Margaret Magat, in her excellent and detailed essay "Balut: Fertilized Duck Eggs and Their Role in Filipino Culture", some make a connection between balut consumption and aswang, a supernatural flesh-eating humanoid creature with a preference for dead bodies and unborn children. The appearance of balut and the way it is eaten are disconcertingly evocative of the aswang's modus operandi - sucking the lifeblood out of a human fetus through its mother's womb. This leads some to believe that the act of eating balut symbolically turns one into an aswang.
"[P.P. said] 'When you look at balut, you see the veins, the skin, the fetus inside. It's like you're eating human fetus.' P.P. believes that balut is something that would empower an aswang..."
(Magat 77)
Magat then discusses the role of spices and seasonings in Filipino folklore in warding off such evil spirits. As garlic is to a vampire, so is salt to an aswang; adding salt to an egg therefore mitigates the fear of a balut-eater symbolically becoming that awful ghoul. Such a belief might explain why sprinkling rock salt (a baggie of which the magbabalut always includes with your order of eggs) and vinegar with chilies is considered the 'right' way to eat balut.



Yet even if one does not believe in aswang, the idea of consuming a baby animal is disturbing to many people, both Filipino and non-Filipinos. The sense of disgust may lie in a subconscious recognition of the state of limbo represented by balut - of life incomplete or interrupted. This 'in-between' nature makes balut hard to categorized, as it is neither 'self' (a living being as we are) nor 'other' (merely food) and may be viewed as unclean or 'risky' to one's sense of self as being alive. These feelings of rejection and confusion in reaction to balut often physically manifest themselves in the form of gagging, making faces and feeling nauseated [Lupton].

Magic and Manhood

Nevertheless, concerns about aswang and limbo are not enough to dissuade balut devotees, who invoke a more powerful force than the supernatural to explain their appeal. Although there is no substantiating medical or scientific evidence, it is widely believed that balut is a potent aphrodisiac. It is supposedly sold only from evening to pre-dawn to provide fuel for anticipated amorous activities (wink-wink, nudge-nudge) [3]. Certainly, balut provides calories and other nutrients for physical energy, but its perceived power to enhance the libido may instead stem from the principles of sympathetic magic in which it is believed that objects sharing a resemblance to each other also share similar attributes, and that desirable (or undesirable) properties of one can be transferred to another by contact, such as food consumption.

Photo credit: Urbanfoodie33
Like the avocado in Central America, whose name is derived from the Nahuatl (Aztec) word ahuacatl, meaning 'testicle', eggs mimic the form of male sexual organs; similarly, an egg's oval shape and role as a vessel of life reflect that of a woman's womb. According to the Law of Similarity in sympathetic magic, eggs would hold the essences of these parts, presumably making them appealing to both sexes. In her study, however, Magat noted that three-quarters of Filipino balut eaters were men, in contrast to Vietnamese and Cambodian consumers, who were more evenly split between the sexes. Furthermore, a Vietnamese-American interviewee recounts in one anecdote that hot vin lon is not primarily taken as an aphrodisiac in his culture, but that he was persuaded of this correlation through his Filipino friends. Why is it that this sexualized component of balut does not seem to hold the same sway on Filipina women and in other food cultures as it does with Filipino men?

Magat theorizes that the discrepancy between genders and cultures may be explained by the influence of Spanish colonialism, which brought to the Philippines the concept of machismo, or male supremacy. According to Magat, balut may have gained its aphrodisiacal reputation as Filipino culture morphed from early norms of gender equality to one in which a double standard prevails - men are expected to demonstrate their virility through sexual prowess while women are expected to exemplify purity through chastity. Therefore, if balut is indeed a potent sexual energizer, then it would be inappropriate as a foodstuff for women.

Identity and Initiation

Beyond gender roles, Filipinos of both sexes do share a sense of identity through the consumption of balut. It serves as an emblem of nation, culture and even socio-economic status. Long considered a poor man's food, eaten with the hands and without rice (therefore not considered a 'proper' meal), balut has in recent years been elevated from humble street snack to a dish found in fine homes and restaurants, through preparations such as Sorpresa de Balut (peeled seasoned egg baked in a pastry) [Fernandez], Adobong Balut [4] (simmered in garlic, vinegar and soy sauce) and, most ironic, Balut a la Pobre ('Poor Man's Balut'). Today, balut is widely (if not infamously) recognized as a Philippine specialty and Filipinos of all backgrounds proudly eat them to signal their group membership. As such, it has become a form of initiation into Pinoy culture.

Stress test: a balut initiation under watchful lenses.
Photo credit: Gen Kanai

It is a tough test for many non-Filipinos to pass, as disgust is the most common reaction, fed by the representation of balut as a freakish, repulsive food on television shows and the aforementioned 'most gross' lists. But prevailing over that disgust and successfully consuming the little duckling (perhaps even enjoying it) means that an outsider gains acceptance and admiration from the 'in' group, and a sense of accomplishment usually reserved for extreme sports and death-defying activities:
"I knew my face also had to show something deeper still: an enlightened awareness that traveling to a new land meant nothing unless you were willing to embrace it fully.
"After discarding a section of beak and one leg, I struggled the duckling down. Our Filipino hosts erupted in applause. It was all for me. I'd done America a good turn."
(Rinella)
Love it or hate it, balut is worthy of closer consideration beyond its ranking on some weird foods list. It is a simple food with complex meanings and a history that can be traced to a distant land but is now firmly established in the Philippines. Appetizing to many and repulsive to even more, balut is not for everyone, but even those who may not enjoy its unusual charms can still appreciate its unique story.

Notes:
1. From Leela of SheSimmers: "[T]he Thai word for 'embryonic egg snack' and the Thai word for 'egg white' are both transliterated 'Khai Khao'. This is because the different tones get lost in the transliteration. In Thai, there's no confusion between the two as they're spelled and pronounced differently. The former is spelled ไข่ข้าว whereas the latter is spelled ไข่ขาว.Thai Khai Khao tends to be a little less developed than balut, though." Thank you, Leela!
2. Alternatively, the town is also famed for its shoe-making industry and may share credit for its name - sapateros is Spanish for shoemakers.
3. More likely, it is a quick, cheap pre-dinner meal for commuting workers; others tease that balut is sold only when it's dark so that you can't see the little duckling inside.
4. Check out recipes for Adobong Balut from Peachkins of The Peach Kitchen and Connie of Home Cooking Rocks.

Works Cited:
Davidson, Alan and Tom Jaine (eds). Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford UP; 2006: 55.
Dunlop, Fuschia. "Transforming Eggs in Chinese Culinary Culture." In: Hoskings, Richard (ed.) Eggs in Cookery: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery 2006. Devon, UK: Prospect; 2007: 51-59.
Fernandez, Doreen G. Tikim: Essays on Philippine Food and Culture. Manila: Anvil Publishing; 1994.
Lupton, Deborah. "Food, Risk and Subjectivity." In: Willams, SJ et al. (eds.) Health, Medicine and Society: Key Theoris, Future Agendas. New York: Routledge; 2000.
Magat, Margaret. "Balut: Fertilized Duck Eggs and Their Role in Filipino Culture." Western Folklore. 2002; 61.1:63-96.
Municipality of Pateros Website. Available at: www.pateros.gov.ph/index.asp.
"Municipality of Pateros." In: Paraiso Philippines Website. Available at: www.paraisophilippines.com.
Rinella, Steven. Personal essay. In: Bad Taste. www.salon.com 10 Oct 2006.
Salvador, Roja. "Pateros: Preserving and Protecting the Indigenous Skills." Our Own Voice Literary Arts Journal [online serial]. March 2004.
Simoons, Frederick J. Eat Not This Flesh. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press; 1994

**This post was adapted from a paper submitted for my coursework at the University of Minnesota, Spring 2010. ** 

Balut a la Pobre

It had been years since I last tasted a fertilized duck egg, mainly because balut is not readily available in the United States (except in those places with large concentrations of Filipinos). I finally tried it again a few years ago, when Mr. Noodle and I made our first Christmas visit to the Philippines and enjoyed Balut a la Pobre during Noche Buena. The name is simultaneously redundant and ironic: balut, a poor man's food, is recast as a fancy dish - sautéed and sauced - then renamed . . . Poor Man's Balut. Go figure.




My take on this dish is not as saucy as Balut a la Pobre should be, but it was flavorful, with a bit of extra bite from the use of ginger, and easy to prepare. I would not advise buying balut too far in advance of making this dish - you're most likely to find a magbabalut selling the eggs, still warm from the pot, only from early evening into late night. Although balut can be stored in the refrigerator for a day, it is really best when used or consumed immediately. 

Ingredients

2-3 Tbsps olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced in slivers
4 balut, peeled and sabaw ('soup' inside) reserved
1 Tbsp soy sauce
Red bell pepper, sliced for garnish
Green onion, cut on a bias, for garnish
Rock salt, to taste

To make:

Heat olive oil in a small sauté or fry pan over medium heat. Add garlic, shallots and ginger, and sauté until fragrant. You'll want them to start caramelizing, but not burn, so reduce heat if necessary. Add balut and cook until all sides are lightly browned. Pour reserved sabaw into the pan and add soy sauce, stirring around the eggs to mix. Cover partially and continue cooking for 3-5 minutes.

When done, place each egg over 1/2 cup of steamed white rice and top with caramelized garlic, shallots and ginger, bell pepper, green onions and rock salt. Serve with a side of vinegar and chopped chilies.


"Let's talk about this for a second . . . There's a lot of elements of a hard-boiled egg to it. It tastes, in some cases, just like a hard boiled egg. So the really soft stuff is the - oh, hello! There's the little guy . . . "
Andrew Zimmern, on eating balut  (Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern/Philippines, 2/25/2007)


22 comments:

  • Jeanne said...

    Wow! I learned a lot here. This is the first time I've heard of balut and I'm not sure that I would have the courage to try it. But what an amazing cultural and culinary story that it has! Thanks for sharing and for expanding my horizons.

  • Lisa said...

    I've heard so many stories about balut from tv "adventurers" that it was so refreshing to read a more humanized approach to it, ie, someone who cares about its cultural significance rather than its shock value. You've given it the respect it deserves. Brava.

  • catty said...

    What an amazing blog post! I hadn't learnt so much from reading a food blog in a while. I think I would definitely try one... but not sure if I would actually like it! :)

  • kat said...

    This is a totally new one for me. I consider myself a pretty daring eater but I'm not sure this is a test I could pass even though I know they issue is all in my head.

  • gastroanthropologist said...

    Wow - I've learned so much from this post! I was offered one in Chinatown in San Francisco many many years ago, but I was a teenager and a bit of a picky eater then and could not. But, I've definitely expanded my horizons since then and eaten lots of bizarre things so with a little bit of mental preparation I would definitely give balut a try. So interesting what foods are considered aphrodisiacs around the world...

  • Jean said...

    A write up very well done. I said on Twitter that I'm not a fan but I was referring mainly to eating the little bird itself. I have sipped the juice from the balut and have also eaten the egg portion of it though that won't win me any points with true balut eaters, right? :-) My teenage nephew ate one last year as part of dare and he made it look easy, LOL!

    Again, well done post.

  • Tes said...

    Excellent post! This really takes me bake to my childhood in Thaiand when a number of times our chickens and ducks abandond their nests, so we need to eat those eggs. They were so delicious. Reading this make me wanna go home to find some baluts now :)

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Thank you for reading and leaving such great comments!

    Jeanne - This was the first time in a long time that I tasted balut again. I still have a long way to go before I can eat the little duckie inside, though. For now, I'll enjoy it incrementally and its story more fully. 8-)

    doggybloggy - I bet there is a Filipino or Vietnamese store that sell fertilized duck eggs. If you get a chance to try, please let me know what you think. 8-)

    Lisa - Thank you so much for including a link to this post on your blog! And many more thanks for your kind words - there's always a story to our food, especially those that are 'weird' to others. Even though they may not be appealing to eat, it's a fascinating way of learning more about another culture. 8-)

    Catty - Give it a try and let me know what you think! 8-) Hope you are feeling better and are on track to recuperate for your return home (though by the sound of it, your parents are doing a marvelous job coddling you!)

    Kat - Me, too! I can eat all other parts of balut, but the actual duckling still escapes me - the feathers just take it to another realm that I can't seem to enter...8-/

    Gastroanthropologist - I bet that you could find balut fairly easily in Chinatown or Daly City! If you ever give it a try, let me know what you think! It's always fascinating to learn the reasons behind the consumption of certain foods that don't seem edible - and sex somehow always seems to be involved...8-)

    5 Star Foodie - LOL! It does give one pause - even me! There are plenty of foods that I won't eat because of various reasons but it is fascinating to learn their history and what role they play in different cultures.

    Jean - Thank you! I also balk at the duckling, for now. The feathers are just to texturally daunting. We'll have to give each other courage!

    Laura - Happy you enjoyed it! The though of eating balut really is a back and forth, should-I-or-should-I-not debate. If ever you do try it, promise you'll share the epxerience! 8-)

    Mariana - Thank you! Though my posts can often get term-paperish, I try to write in a way that shares my fascination with "foods' stories". Hope I've managed that! 8-)

    Tes - Wow! So you had these eggs about as fresh as they could be! Was there a certain way you ate them (with a particular seasoning or prepared a certain way)? Hope you have a chance to have them again. 8-)

    Wine Yoda - Thank you so much! Though balut is being dressed up in fancy sauces, it definitely is a nitty-gritty street food. 8-)

    Chef_d - Thank you!! I learned so much about balut while researching this paper. I bought a 1/2 dozen for the 'ala pobre' dish for this post, and 2 of them turned out to be penoy. The yolk at that stage is just incredible - so velvety and creamy! Since I can't manage to eat the duckling just yet, I may just revert to full time penoy-eating! 8-D

  • Lori said...

    Ok, so you've touched on the one food I've always said I didn't think I could eat. We've seen them on plenty of shows and while I can suck marrow out of a bone, I'm not quite sure I could this. :)

    That being said you have made it look very appetizing. I might be convinced if you make it for me. Thanks for all the great history too. So interesting!

  • SKIP TO MALOU said...

    your rendition of balut ala pobre is so "sosyal"
    I love balut and I actually could do a a balut eating challenge and Im sure I could beat anyone haha.. but really I could eat a lot of these in one sitting.. much to my sister's (who is also my doctor)chagrin haha!

  • Forager @ The Gourmet Forager said...

    I was just about to say - this topic is right up Andrew Zimmern's alley. I remember trying this as a kid, and it is also eaten in China, but not commonly. Funnily, other than "that duckling egg" - what our family refers to it, I know no other name for it other than balut though so it must be most popular in Phillipino culture. Great write up - very informative!

  • ChichaJo said...

    Wow! I never knew all that about balut! Great, informative post! I like the ducky and the soup myself...I'll usually give the yolk to someone else :)

  • Annapet said...

    Excellent post as usual! Thank you for writing about balut. I love balut though I always stress "Please the balut sa puti only!" since the feathers scare me a bit, too.

    Now I want a couple of balut eggs.

  • Candy A. said...

    To eat a Balut is the ultimate test of how adventurous one's palette can withstand.Little curled up under developed duck embryo with feathers, head,and feet,oh la la. Can I say gastronomic delight or disaster? Try it, who knows you might end up liking it.

 

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