What is balut?
Balut is a popular street food found in the Philippines and it is one of the country’s most iconic and exotic delicacies. The sun going down and the night starting signifies the arrival of the magbabalut, which is what Filipinos call the balut vendor. He would shout balut for the whole neighborhood to hear. Upon hearing his shout, which is really more of a sweet melody than a shout if you get to listen to it, excited people will chase after him to buy one of his baluts.
The balut is a two to three week old fertilized duck egg. To go into the details, the fertilized egg contains not just the yolk but also the duck embryo that is still developing. The balut also contains a delicious brown juice inside the egg. This, often, is what people love eating the most.
It is however not unique to the Philippines. If not slurping balut soup or sabaw, people like to gobble down on the duck embryo instead.
However, even though balut is greatly enjoyed in the Philippines, it does not mean it is found only in the country. It also exists in other Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Some historical accounts say it was originally brought to these countries by seafaring Chinese traders long ago.
The name of this weird (to say the least) treat comes from the image of breaking open the shell of the balut and finding the duck embryo covered in white or balut sa puti.
How to make balut?
Making balut is a laborious and complex process. The first step begins with the duck eggs being brought to the magababalut on the day the eggs are laid. The magbabalut then casts light on the fertilized egg to determine and spot the developing embryo. If there are no embryos, the egg is put aside and sold as penoy. Then, all the identified balut eggs are incubated, most do this by putting the eggs in a basket surrounded by warmed rice husks.
After sufficient amount of time incubating, the balut eggs are boiled for some time. Afterwards, the balut is kept at hot temperatures 57 °C (135 °F) and above. These balut eggs are then ready to eat and stored for at most a day by the magbabalut until they’re bought and sold by customers usually at night time.
Balut in Western popular culture
Balut has been featured in a number of Western shows which has excited, if not horrified, a lot of Western folks not familiar with the Southeast Asian delicacy.
The show Fear Factor popularized the snack to Americans as “duck embryo” much to the disgust and wonder of its fans. Another American reality show, Hell’s Kitchen, made eating balut a punishment for a losing team in one of their episodes. The popular food show host Anthony Bourdain ate balut and described it as “duck fetus.”
From its handful of appearances in Western popular culture, balut, as we can see, has been popularized as an “exotic adventure” type of food. For Westerners new to Southeast Asian food, their introduction to balut is often met with repulsion along with their stomachs turning.
Is balut as it is portrayed in popular culture in the West really as bad as it sounds?
Balut as everyday Filipino street food
The best balut in the Philippines is believed to be those made in Pateros, a municipality on the eastern end of Metro Manila. However, you don’t have to travel far to find a local balut vendor roaming the street sides. With the sunset comes the arrival of the magbabalut, and almost all towns in the country have their local magbabalut or two.
Along with its unique flavor, it is also enjoyed for being highly nutritious. Balut contains niacin, riboflavin and thiamine, which help in metabolizing energy. Each egg contains only 188 calories but is loaded with the protein, calcium, iron, and phosphorus that everyone needs for a healthy body and mind.
Balut tends to be a favorite snack of overtime workers and night owls. With most stores closed for the night, people of the night will have to look somewhere else for their fill. Given that balut is mostly available at night time, it becomes a perfect chow for the night people.
Not only night owls devour balut with gusto. Hungover people also retire to balut to help ease their headaches. It’s eaten by people to recover from a heavy drinking episode. One of the few joys of being in the Philippines is chasing after a magbabalut while hungover and nauseous. Afterwards, the real treat begins when you crack open the shell and slurp the delicious and warm balut soup or sabaw down. If one balut doesn’t make the headaches go away, maybe another one would!
Aside from being a midnight snack and a hangover food, some Filipinos also consider it an aphrodisiac! With this being the case, you can see one or two magbabalut while strolling in a red light district.
Where and when do you get it?
Balut vendors can be easily found at transportation hubs, wet markets, and entertainment districts in Manila. They tend to come out at night, selling the delicacy on the street side. But you know there’s a balut vendor when you hear a loud, bellowing “baluuuut” from the distance. You can then buy the balut and eat it on the spot or bring it home for your family and friends as a night snack.
How do you eat it?
When eating balut, Filipinos usually sip the balut soup or sabaw from inside after dabbing salt on it to enhance the flavor. The balut itself, namely the embryo alongside the yolk, can be eaten as is, and is often also paired with salt.
A lot of Filipinos like to eat it with homemade vinegar-and-chili mix. These vinegar and chili blends work best with a generous amount of chili. The balut proper can then be dipped into the mix.
There’s no particular order with which to eat first, whether it’s the yolk or the dreaded duck fetus. Both, however, are best eaten accompanied with the aforementioned vinegar and chili mix.
How about the white part however that comes with balut? Some baluts, especially the ones that were incubated for longer, develop white parts called albumen that are generally less flavorful than the yolk and the duck embryo, alongside being tough to eat. Should you eat it? Some Filipinos opt to skip it, but it is still edible.
What does it taste like?
The only way to overcome the fear of balut is to have a bite of it. Once you know how good balut tastes like, there really isn’t much to fear anymore. So what does it taste like exactly?
A great balut has yolk with the texture of cream cheese. Balut is not as sulfurous as regular hard-boiled chicken eggs. Additionally, it comes with a sweet and salty sabaw. And when it comes to the embryo’s texture, there really is nothing to fear. The bones are soft and tender and as you chew them, it dissolves in your mouth.
Overall, the much dreaded balut is actually truly a delicious snack that is feared much more than it should be by media sensationalization.
If you still think balut is gross even after you’ve reached the end of this article, the key, really, is to try it out to say for sure. Many are already revolted by the idea of balut. However, overcoming the disgust means you will need to have a bite first. The next time you are in the Philippines, wait for the magbabalut as he melodically cries “baluuuut”.