Balut is a nutrient-rich snack, an exotic delicacy and a challenge that could unsettle even the most daring of Fear Factor contestants.
It’s a dish widely enjoyed in the Philippines and other parts of South East Asia and at first glance, it seems a lot like a hard-boiled egg. The only difference is that when you inspect the contents, you find the yolk is actually an 18-day-old fertilized duck embryo.
Balut has been described as a snack that’s as common in Filipino culture as hot dogs are in the U.S. It’s most commonly eaten in the early evening with lots of salt and a nice cold beer.
On the streets of Manila, you’ll find vendors on every corner selling warm eggs to hungry passersby. Just crack the egg open, peel the shell and add a pinch of sodium. Some eat the snack with a fork, though the usual way to scarf it down is with your bare hands.
Balut is valued as a good calcium hit, a cheap source of protein and a potent aphrodisiac. Countless people also love the taste, but to the uninitiated, the experience can seem not so much gourmet as just plain gross.
The U.S.-based satirical site www.Cracked.com voted balut one of the “most terrifying foods in the world,” and relates that balut is enjoyed in Cambodia, the Philippines and the fifth and seventh levels of hell.
When travelling, I like to keep an open mind and eat as the locals do, even if that means taking culinary challenges to the extreme. So I head to Pateros — a district 20 minutes outside of central Manila that’s known as the balut capital of the Philippines — to try the thing for myself.
I visit a locally-owned balut factory where they process about 80,000 eggs a week. Half are sold as balut and the other half as salted eggs.
The owner, Andy Concio, takes me through the factory and explains that thousands of eggs are incubated in wooden chambers and heated at just the right temperature. The process of fertilization is regularly monitored using a device that looks like a pinhole camera.
He puts an egg under the light of a naked bulb and inspects it carefully. “The dark shape sloshing around in the egg means the embryo is forming,” he says. “If the light doesn’t show the veiny liquid, the egg is infertile and cannot be used for balut.”
Concio claims to be the first to preserve the product and export it as a non-perishable food item. His main customers are Filipino migrant workers living and working in Dubai, but his base is growing.
He plans to ship the product to the U.S., making it available to millions of South Asian ex-pats who miss their salty snack.
So what does balut taste like? I pick at an eggshell, then take a shot of the fluid inside. The liquid is warm and tastes like green tea. But the rest of the contents aren’t so soothing. They remind me of dry, mealy turkey, the sort that’s been hanging around much too long after Thanksgiving dinner.
I’m happy I tried balut —?and still plan to keep sampling local dishes wherever I go — but I still feel a bit tongue-traumatized. And I may never be able to look at an egg the same way again.
Catch the second season of Word Travels, a documentary series that follows the real-life adventures of travel writers Julia Dimon and Robin Esrock. It airs Sundays at 8:30 p.m. on OLN, with a repeat at 11:30 p.m.
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