Balut. If the thought of eating brains wasn't terrifying enough for many people, the word "balut" is usually uttered with shock, repulsion or -- conversely -- back-slapping bravado.
What is balut? It's a fertilised duck or chicken egg, incubated for 17-21 days so an embryo develops inside. The egg is steamed and eaten as a high protein delicacy in Southeast Asia. It's called khai luk in Thailand, máodàn in China and hột vịt lộn in Vietnam, but most Westerners know it by its name in the Philippines, balut.
Balut eggs with Vietnamese coriander
I had my first balut several years ago with Veruca Salt's family, a treat at her home that was savoured with herbs. It was her parents who also gave me my first taste of tiết canh, a traditional Vietnamese dish made by coagulating fresh raw duck blood in a large round disc. We ate slices of it like pizza, garnishing it with lemon juice, peanuts, coriander and mint. The duck had been slaughtered in the backyard, drained of blood, and the whole bird cooked for a family dinner that evening.
Balut, like all foods, offered a cultural insight. I was fascinated by its foreign texture and flavours, and torn over the confronting thought of eating an embryo. It's one of the few dishes that creates such an emotional reaction, but is eating a duck embryo very much different from eating veal, lamb or suckling pig?
Cracking the top of the egg with the back of a spoon
There are not many places you can find balut in Sydney, but we eventually track them down at Diem Hen, a Vietnamese restaurant in Canley Heights, next door to Cabramatta. The eggs are perched on little plastic cups, served with sprigs of rau răm or Vietnamese coriander.
We use the back of our spoons to crack the top of each egg, just like you would with a soft boiled egg. The top of the egg is then peeled to reveal the cooked embryo inside. I've always found the liquid inside to be the best part, incredibly sweet and best sipped straight from the shell. This is actually the amniotic fluid.
Usually the balut is eaten with a spoon, dug out in small scoops and dipped in lemon juice and pepper. Only the anatomically adventurous like to extricate the entire innards so they can pull apart and examine its three components: the duckling, the egg yolk and the egg white.
The egg yolk looks and tastes similar to a standard boiled egg, perhaps a little creamier. The egg white is often known as the "white bit", a hard and rubbery segment that is notoriously difficult to chew and ultimately flavourless.
It's the folded up duckling inside that is the most daunting prospect. Depending on the age of the embryo, it's usually quite soft and mushy, tasting of liver and dark poultry meat. The lemon juice, pepper and Vietnamese coriander leaves all help lighten the dish and cleanse the palate.
In the East, balut is usually eaten by men, valued for its high protein and energy, a concept that makes sense when you consider that meat is usually limited and expensive. In the West, it's sensationalised as a horrific and mortifying dare, featuring in challenges on Survivor and Fear Factor. Even Anthony Bourdain wasn't a fan.
I say keep an open mind, try it yourself, and make your own call.
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3/11/2011 02:19:00 a.m.