In New York City this weekend, there will be a balut-eating contest where, among other things, we'll be introduced to shopworn shock stories about how Southeast Asians, Filipinos in particular, can stomach this fetal duck egg dish. Maharlika, a Filipino restaurant that serves a sisig—pork cheeks, belly, snout, ears boiled and fried with an egg on top—so delicious I'd have no qualms selling my grandma for it, is hosting the contest to raise awareness about Filipino cuisine, as The New York Times' Alex Vadukul has noted.
The only thing is, raising awareness about Filipino cuisine doesn't really happen when the majority of stories written about Filipino dishes revolve around how weird (sometimes hitting a xenophobic chord) it is that Filipinos eat something as odd (to Westerners) as fertilized duck eggs. As Vadukul puts it, "Balut, a perennial contender on any Westerner’s list of extreme foods, is consumed in the Philippines as naturally as hamburgers are here. It’s a fertilized duck egg, a Franken-snack complete with partially developed bones, veins and eyes," Vadukul isn't alone in his balut fear-mongering: Anthony Bourdain, and that bald guy who eats odd things for a living on Travel Channel, couldn't really handle them either.
Well, if this whole notion of people noshing on duck embryos is new to you and you're grossed out by people eating this, here's my best stab at what this is all about:
So, wait, explain this again?
The balut or the contest?
The baahlluuu ... The balooo... The gross duck thing.
Oh ok. Well, first off it's not that gross--
Okay, well, have you tried it?
No. Have you?
Yes. I mean, when I was a kid my mom told me it was a pterodactyl eggs (I liked dinosaurs and thought I'd be one when I grew up), and got me to eat it. And that happened like four more times until I was old enough (no I am not telling you the age) to call BS on the pterodactyl thing.
Okay, stop saying that. But yes, balut is a fertilized duck egg (baby duck/embryo and all) that, in the way it's been prepared for me, is boiled like you would a chicken egg.
And that Vadukul guy says, you guys eat it "naturally." That's pretty gross.
First off, what's "gross" or "not gross", when it comes to food or whatnot is completely relative and subjective, and a lot of it depends where you grew up. Fish sticks, might be conceivably weird to someone in another country. Or foie gras, or Uni sashimi, or Rocky Mountain Oysters... The list goes on. And what does eating something "naturally" even mean?
Well, like "naturally" means, I think, no one cares THAT YOU ARE EATING A DUCK EMBRYO!
Okay, so yeah, again. No one would think you were weird for stuffing your face with deep-fried bull testicles, if you lived in a place that didn't put a stigma on Rocky Mountain Oysters. And just to clear something up, balut is more of a street food than it is a "delicacy."
So what's it like?
It basically tastes like a salty hard-boiled egg on steroids. Like Vadukul writes, there's a place on the bottom of the egg where you crack and this membrane that you break (yes I realize that I'm not doing the squeamish among us any favors) and it releases a broth that basically tastes like a really strong chicken soup. From there, it's just like a hard-boiled egg with amped up flavors.
And the embryo?
You realize, eating that part is totally optional. It's been a while, but all I remember from my balut-eating experiences is that it just basically like a tender chicken in a briny, foie gras-ish soup (you sprinkle salt on the egg before you eat it).
Is all Filipino food this weird?
No. It's even weirder. Haha, just kidding ... Well, sort of. But you can sort of see the problem here when one dish dominates the conversation about a type of cuisine and becomes the face of that cuisine--and how that cuisine is turns into an object of gawking and pointing out the "weird."
If you look at Maharlika's menu, you'll notice there's a ton of pork--pork makes most Filipinos very happy (so does SPAM). And we like vinegar. Yum, roast pork and vinegar ... Okay, I'm getting sidetracked, but if you look at how Filipino food is often described, people refer to it as the "soul food" of Asian cuisine--meaning the food reflects the country's immigrants and its history of colonizers. There's a lot of sauce, soups, and a mix of savory and sour in Filipino food.
You said weirder?
Well, my parents never made me eat ice cream served in bun which also happens in the Philippines and I personally think is weirder than boiling an egg. Nor did they ever make me eat dinuguan, pig blood stew, which my cousins love. There's also stuff like taba ng talanka, which is crab paste that tastes amazing when you smear it on rice.
Then again, I also think eggplant is pretty weird and gnarly.
So should I go down to Brooklyn and eat it?
Why not? I mean, obviously you can't sign up for the competitive eating contest (the entries for the closed on Thursday), but that shouldn't stop you from eating it. And you can always say "no, nope, this is too hardcore for me" and nix your food adventure anytime.
Photo by: Richard Peterson, via Shutterstock.