Many years ago I was given a copy of a wonderful book called “Exotic Food” by Rupert Croft-Cooke, published in 1969. Dipping in to it was a wonderful experience… how would you set about cooking armadillo, elephant tusk, rhinoceros thigh and other such delicacies?
Maybe it was because of that book that I have always made it one of my live-by-rules to try everything at least once and never to say ‘how disgusting’ or whatever, dismissing it out of hand. And so it was I tried dog meat in Hong Kong in the 1970s (Alsatian meat with Hoi Sin sauce – yummy!); baby milk-fed camel in Saudi Arabia (mega-yummy); sea slug (not so yummy), snails cooked in garlic (more, more!), and a host of other delicacies which – if you were to believe some comments on the web – you would avoid at all costs.
My latest revelation was a delicacy found across south-east Asia – in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines in particular.
When I used to work for the BBC World Service, I was always somewhat amused when asked by the Vietnamese language section if I could provide them with chicken eggs from my eight Rhode Island Reds that I used to rear in my garden in London. But not any egg, you understand. No; they wanted what they called trứng vịt lộn, wherein the eggs when laid were fertilised, then left for a couple of weeks or so before being cooked and enjoyed for their meaty taste. I never did supply their needs (not least because I didn’t have a cockerel at that time) but it always left me intrigued as to why they were so eager for what they considered to be a great delicacy. Only now have I come to understand what they were on about!
Here in the Philippines they call them ‘balut’ or ‘balot’ (which in Tagalog means ‘wrapped’). It is commonly eaten as streetfood. Imagine a developing duck embryo that is boiled alive and eaten straight out of its shell. The perfect balut egg is normally 17 days old, which is when the duck chick still does not have a beak, bones or feathers. Apparently in Vietnam however, they prefer them to be 19-21 days old, the point at which the bones of the chick are firm, albeit that they soften when cooked.
The process is quite straight forward. Fertilized duck eggs are kept warm in the sun and stored in baskets to retain that warmth. After nine days, when the eggs are held up to a light you can see the embryo forming inside. Some eight days later the balut are ready to be cooked, sold, and eaten.
Duck eggs that have not properly developed after nine to twelve days are sold as ‘penoy’, which are cooked in a similar way to a regular boiled egg, but have a meatier taste to them. So that the producers and sellers know which is which, the penoy shells are marked with a cross …
You eat them like hard boiled eggs, but it’s normal to dip the pieces in a vinegar sauce or add salt too…
although they can also be deep fried in batter for a very satisfying appetiser.
I was recently in the rice growing region of central Luzon when I was asked if I would like to try some balut. I could see grins on the faces of the Filipinos around me. Would this Westerner shirk away in disgust? Alas for them, they were disappointed. ‘I would love to’ I replied.
Tina, my hostess, showed me what to do as friends and family stood around to enjoy the show…
First I was told to crack a small hole on the rounder, wider, end of the shell and then to extend the hole a little more and to sip the broth from the inside. Wow! Delicious!
Next, the opening is enlarged even further and it’s now you can add your seasoning, or just plain salt depending on your preference. But I opted to try it without anything added so I could savour the real flavour.
It’s now you make a start on the duckling foetus. Some slurp the whole caboodle out of the shell and munch their way through; others use a teaspoon to lift the meaty egg out of the shell. Either way, it really is delicious, once you have put aside any squeamish notions you might have.
At the very bottom of the egg is a very tough lump of egg white. That too is eaten, but it’s a real chew to get through it, and for me was the least appetising part of the balut. A shame one ends with that bit – although I read that some people don’t bother with this bit and just throw it away.
Balut are also prepared in deep fried batter for a more wholesome eating experience…
As well as buying from street vendors – where they typically cost between P12 (around £0.18) and P20 – balut and penoy have moved into mainstream cuisine in the Philippines; supermarket food halls typically sell them – such as at this kiosk in SM City, Parañaque
where you can also get one-day old chicks, which are typically deep fried and eaten whole…
The chick has the added ignominy of having a wooden stick shoved up its backside so you can handle it easier … and then the only decision you have to make is whether to start on its head or its feet…
Because just-hatched chicks have few of their internal organs fully developed, one of the biggest parts at this age is the bile duct. For this reason the taste (once you have munched your way through its skull) can be very bitter. Most people opt to dip the body into a sugary-vinegary-oniony mix to hide the bile while still enjoying that fresh-cooked-chick taste. Poor thing! But happy stomach!
What gets me is the way some of the web sites around cyberspace describe these delicacies as if they are particularly gross. For instance:
I think balut eggs might be the yuckiest looking food I have come across. Although we have no hestitation in eating eggs, or even young animals, balut eggs just push all of the ‘eww’ buttons in my brain.
Say buh-loot. Then shudder in fear.
How weird can a food be, you ask? Balut is way up there in the ionosphere of weird, far past gonzo. Balut is fear itself. Though a snack much beloved in the Philippines, balut to us is a torture of an item, a bizarrely-conceived if not abjectly demonic dish. It’s not a pretty sight.
Balut is the culinary heart of darkness. If you eat it, you have reservations about doing so. If you know about it, you have strong opinions regarding it.
Superman has his kryptonite and I have balut. It is probably one of the (if not THE) exotic foods I fear most.
Oh, stuff and nonsense! Gimme a balut egg anytime – why, it’s even better than Alsatian meat … with or without Hoi Sin sauce!