Balut could use a food stylist. Maybe even a publicist. Depending on the number of days in gestation, this boiled duck egg may contain either a barely noticeable embryo or a partially developed chick with matted down feathers. In the Philippines, balut is regarded as a complete meal, a miniature duck stew cooked in its own shell. At 25 cents each, it is also one of the cheapest sources of protein in a country where majority of the population barely earn $8 a day. Understandably, the thought of feathers tickling the inside of one’s throat may be off-putting to some, but they will miss out on the best parts. The warm broth tastes like that of a shanghai soup dumpling while the yolk has a complex nutty flavor that retains its creamy texture even when boiled.
Balut is traditionally sold by mambabalots, street vendors carrying baskets lined with burlap to keep their freshly boiled contents warm. From dusk to midnight, they weave their way in and out of Manila’s little neighborhoods, announcing their presence with mournful howls of “baluuuuut”. Their timing coincides with the end of the work day, when jeepney drivers, street urchins and even white-collar office workers congregate in mom and pop beer joints for a swig of San Miguel Pale Pilsen served in recycled Nescafe glasses, with perhaps a balut or two on the side.
It is a myth that Filipinos are born immune to the disturbing images accompanying the eating of balut; in fact, no one I know has been able to swallow the chick the first time around. In spite of it, they are wooed back by the broth and yolk. Over time as they get more accustomed to the sight of the chick, curiosity wins over dread and they succumb.
Nowadays, balut graces the menus of Manila’s upscale restaurants, dressed up by chefs to make it more palatable to the squeamish eater. Le Souffle takes the easy way out, using only the yolk in its balut soufflé. Filos makes a balut pate, pulverizing all traces of embryo so that it only exists in your imagination. Via Mare serves it multiple ways out of its shell. Balut ala Pobre is sautéed in garlic and olive oil and then simmered in its own broth with a dash of oyster sauce. Fried Balut is coated with batter and deep fried tempura-style. Pastel de Balut is hidden under a cloak of puff pastry and baked in a ramekin.
I have yet to hear from any balut aficionado that all this creativity has actually improved on tradition. When asked how he liked Balut ala Pobre, a friend who admits to consuming over a hundred boiled baluts this year responded with a lukewarm “It’s tasty, but it’s not the same experience.”
Perhaps, this is because enjoying balut encompasses more than just the consumption of the egg itself. It is getting to know which mambabalot sells the freshest eggs with chicks developed to the exact stage of one’s liking. It is understanding that balut should only be eaten when freshly boiled and still warm. It is knowing which end to crack (the rounded one) so that one can suck out the concentrated duck broth. It is carefully unwrapping the solid yolk, sprinkling it with a little rock salt (never iodized!) and savoring its creamy texture and nutty taste. It is recognizing the folly of using a fork and knife to cut into the soft white membrane, exposing the massacre of the chick in all its bloody detail. It is accepting that there are certain things in life best done impulsively and that popping the entire chick into one’s mouth is one of them. Finally, it is clearing one’s mind of any visual prejudice and just letting one’s taste buds enjoy the mouthful of pure warm duck soup.