The Culinary Provocation: Duck Eggs (Balut)
It’s a truism that tastes differ. There are diverse cultures of kitchen that approve the one and refuse the other meal. A strict Muslim should have disgust-feelings with regard to pork, western taste will refuse the meat of a snake or locusts vehemently. There are many Asians and Africans – especially if they are sensitive to lactose – which boycott cheese as rotten milk. An animal can be regarded generally as an excellent food, parts however - as for example the blood, the udder, the lungs or testicles - can nevertheless be banned.
The native Philippine kitchen offers besides standard-food, fast-food as well as distinct delicacies all sorts of adventure-meals, which can be refused or welcomed. Dried fish or the fermented salty fish- and shrimp sauces (bagoong / patis) are still harmless. The experience is the same as with garlic. If they are eaten, the severe odour lifts off in a miraculous way or doesn’t come to knowledge.
More challenging offers are chicken heads ("helmets"), pigs ears ("Walkman"), fish heads (including eyes) or roasted chicken intestines ("Iud"). But - it’s clear - these offers can be refused in favour of certain specialties of Philippine kitchen like "Baby Lechon" (roasted piglet), "Chicken Binakol" (chicken cooked in banana leaves with onions, garlic and lemon grass), "Lumpia" (spring rolls) or "Halo Halo" (Mixed ice with coconut milk, fruits, corn and cereals).
Sooner or later the visitor of the country will be called for the "naturalization baptism" or "assimilation test" ( „Let's see, are if you are a real Filipino"?). The friends want to have their joke, gathering around him and observing the shock-experience with relish. The visitor gets a "Balut" – as a "normal" egg it shouldn’t create any problem. At least the forehead of the visitor begins to wrinkle up, when he comes to know that his egg is a duck egg with a partially developed duckling. If the visitor is still hesitating to eat the egg, than it is time to refer to the aphoristic side effects ("It makes you good at boom-boom" - You'll get strong knees") or alcohol will be offered. Some resist the temptation and initiation rite for years. And with that we are right in the topic.
As the cock-fighting the production of baluts is a "Big-business" on the Philippines. Also the small farmers take a share in this business. A big part of the nine million ducks (1) which were held in 1988 on the Philippines serves only the purpose of balut production. The freshly bred eggs are taken away from the duck mother and tested for fertilization (Candle test) and firmness of the egg shell. After this selection in the traditional procedure (no electrical incubators) numerous bags or layers of husk or hay are put on the top of the eggs, to stimulate the body temperature of the mother duck (42 °). Additionally the layers can be doused with warm water several times a day. After six days another fertilization test can follow. Not fertilized eggs are sold as fresh eggs or salt-cured eggs. A further test takes place after 14 days. Fertilized but not developed eggs are cooked and sold as "Penoy" eggs. These eggs find also buyers. Eggs with dead embryos have no market value and are discarded.
Ducklings normally slip after approx. 28 days. Baluts however reach their market maturity from the 14th day on. That’s the reason why mockers speak from a "duck abortion". Prevailing opinion is, that 17-days-eggs are the best. In this phase no firm beak or plumage is yet developed, however, a partly developed body with weak bones and eyes, swimming in fluid. Before the eggs are brought to the market, they are still cooked approx. twenty minutes.
Baluts are sold on markets or hawked up by peddlers ("balut men"). The street sellers in the cities appear usually after dark. For mockers the reason, why the balut vendors appear in the early evening, is quite simple: The darker the night, the higher the consumption of baluts. With twilight-break-in the shouts of vendors "Balu-uuut …. Balu-uuut" fill the tropical night in a sing-song manner. The duck-eggs are transported in baskets and are hold warmly with hot towels. The Baluts are mostly offered in a bag made of newspaper with a portion of gritty salt in the bag-end. In March 2001, a balut egg was sold for approx. eight Pesos.
Eating a Balut needs a little training, because there is still liquid in the egg. First, crack the egg on the flat bottom, make a cavity in the size of a penny and remove the shell membrane. Drop in a pinch of salt and slurp the yellowish liquid (Allantois). Now the egg can be opened further. Again salt is added – may be also vinegar - and now the wrapped, lizard-similar meat of the balut can be consumed. Experts are recommending the novice not to observe the brownish-black meat if possible not too serve. At the narrow end of the egg there is still a hardened protein rest which one can be eaten or removed.
What’s the taste of a balut? For some it is "disgusting". Other praise the taste comparable to crab meat. One author is writing, it’s a "combination of saltiness and tartness, softness and crunchiness, a sensation of sweetness, the degree of resistance to the bite, the viscosity and stickiness are the rewards". Certainly also the ingredients contribute to the taste formation – comparable to fish. The humble balut is only eaten with salt or vinegar. Beer or Gin stimulate the digestion. But there are also attempts of taste refinement, by adding of Curry, Chilli, sweet-sour sauces and Soya-sauces. Creative gastronomes have developed gourmet versions with puff-paste or omelettes for the western taste and middle classes, rewarmable in the microwave.
We mentioned already; that baluts are considered as aphrodisiacs – as "local Viagra". It is right that the balut can build up energy by its proteins, minerals and vitamin E. A specific potency-increasing effect of the Baluts has never been verified, however. For western observers the continuous search for potency increasing drugs and corresponding myth-formation in Asia is somewhat odd.
Besides baluts there are still "Pi dons"- so called "one-hundred-year-old" eggs. They are mostly offered in China-Shops. The eggs are baked in loam and are also offered in the initial loam package. The loam package makes the eggs less fragile and especially durable. According to Roland Hanewald (2) they are "inside almost black, but not rotten, from solid consistence and have a taste comparable to Camembert-cheese."
(1) As in the EC the agricultural production in the Philippines seems to give many statisticians an income.
(2) Roland Hanewald, Philippinen Abenteuer-Handbuch, Bremen, 1966, p.15
© Wolfgang Bethge, 2002