When I think back to some of the most disgusting things I’ve eaten over the course of my travel career, even I have to wonder what I was thinking. I’ve sampled scorpion, live termites, dog, guinea pig, snake blood, scorpion, lamb’s penis and live aphrodisiac worm, but I’ve never done embryo.
Balut sure is one for the books. I look back at the experience of trying Balut in the Philippines for the fist time: Crack. I peel open the shards of egg shell and take a cautious peek inside. Sitting in a bag of juicy embryonic fluid is a curled up fetal duck. It’s not fully formed but I can see the onset of dark feathers, a beak and a pair of bulging eye balls.
This is the Balut. An 18-day old fertilized duck embryo that’s an exotic delicacy enjoyed in the Philippines and other parts of South East Asia. This appetizer is most commonly eaten in the early evening, with a nice cold beer and lots of salt. In Filipino culture, Balut has been described as a snack that’s as common as hot dogs are to Americans. While some eat this street food with a fork, the common way to scarf one down, is with your bare hands. It’s believed to be a good source of calcium, a cheap hit of protein and a potent aphrodisiac.
The concept of eating a fetal duck egg is pretty unappetizing to the initiated. Cracked.com, an American humor and video website, voted Balut as the number one “most terrifying foods in the world.” The website “reports” that Balut is enjoyed in Cambodia, Philippines and the fifth and seventh levels of hell.
When traveling, I like to keep an open mind, take culinary challenges to the extreme and eat as the locals do. So I head to Pateros, a district 20 minutes outside of central Manila, known as the Balut capital of the Philippines.
I visited a locally-owned Balut factory where they process about 80,000 eggs a week, 50% of which are sold as Balut and the other half are sold as salted eggs.
I found a local restaurant that served Balut and ordered one hot fetal duck and one San Miguel beer to wash it all down.
Starring into the eye of a boiled baby duck, I wondered if I was going to be able to pull this off.
This is not the first time I’ve eaten food that some would consider…disgusting. I enjoy challenging my tastebuds and my stomach lining. I’ve earned the name “iron gut” among friends because of my insatiable appetite (and ability to keep down) all things vile.
Picking at the egg shell, I suck out the fluid. The liquid is warm and tastes like green tea. Not so bad. Then I did what any Fear Factor contestant shouldn’t – I poked at my meal, exposing its beak, eyes and feathers. It was undeniable. I was about to eat a partially developed bird.
The key to eating unusual foods is that it’s all in the mind. Taste is subjective. It boils down to cultural norms and what you grew up with. It’s strange. I eat eggs, I eat chicken but there’s something unsavory about eating a partially developed fetus. It was psychological barrier that I had to overcome.
Stomach gurgling, gag reflexes ready to go, I take a bite. I took a big swig of beer to help force it down my reluctant throat. It tasted like dry, mealy turkey, that’s eaten long after Thanksgiving.
Though culturally important in Filipino society, the Balut just wasn’t for me. Tongue traumatized by the experience, Balut ranks high on my list of gross and, though I’m happy I tried it, I may never be able to look at an egg the same way again.
photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/chadedward/