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Friday, March 11, 2011

Balut at Diem Hen, Canley Heights

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.

Warning: This post contains graphic images. 

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?

Warning: This post contains graphic images. Please do not scroll any further if you do not want to see a duck embryo. 

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.

Inside the balut

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.

The embryo

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.

View Larger Map
Diem Hen on Urbanspoon

Diem Hen
205 Canley Vale Road, Canley Heights, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9724 9800

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26 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 3/11/2011 02:19:00 am


  • At 3/11/2011 3:10 am, Blogger Peter G | Souvlaki For The Soul said…

    You are one very brave woman Ms Yee!

  • At 3/11/2011 6:10 am, Blogger joey@forkingaroundsydney said…

    Not for me either, but each to their own. I like the warnings about impending graphic images! LOL I'm eating a bowl of cereal whilst reading this but it didn't make me squeamish at all.

  • At 3/11/2011 9:23 am, Anonymous Minh said…

    Oh lols, I thought you were going to unfold the entire embryo! It's mean but I like taking tourists to eat Balut lol. I used to love these when I was a kid but I can't bear to eat them anymore!

  • At 3/11/2011 9:36 am, Blogger Anh said…

    In Vietnam balut is eaten for breakfast. It's said to cure headache... :) For me obviously there's a YUM factor involved here ^^

  • At 3/11/2011 10:13 am, Anonymous OohLookBel said…

    Thanks for the warnings in this post. I admit that I was too squeamish to look at the pictures (I've seen Luke Nguyen and Bourdain eat them and it was pretty gross). It's fascinating to hear about it, though.

  • At 3/11/2011 10:13 am, Anonymous Gastronomous Anonymous said…

    oh my goodness! you are brave! Im not sure if i could eat the embryo but it does look interesting though!

  • At 3/11/2011 10:20 am, Anonymous Howard said…

    I don't mind eating this as long as I can wash it down with an iced coffee or beer! The taste can be quite intense.

  • At 3/11/2011 10:46 am, Blogger sugarpuffi said…

    wow! i thought there isnt any balut in australia but u certainly have ur ways in finding them! ive never tried it though and i think im too much of a wimp to eat the whole thing but maybe a scoop is good cause i really want to try it!

  • At 3/11/2011 11:01 am, Blogger susan said…

    Yeah I don't think I could ever eat that. Amazing who comes up with these ideas though..

  • At 3/11/2011 11:15 am, Anonymous KFC so good said…

    you made it look possible. there might be a balut in my future. thanks for expanding my horizon.

  • At 3/11/2011 11:28 am, Anonymous jenius said…

    Ah, this is still a delicacy at my parents household! The mint plays a crucial part in balancing out the taste of the duckling. I haven't had it in years but agree the liquid is the best part.

  • At 3/11/2011 12:07 pm, Anonymous Jacq said…

    Aw I wanted to see the insides! I didn't know you could actually get balut in Australia, it's something I want to try but I would definitely need a few friends to come along and eat it with me!

  • At 3/11/2011 12:10 pm, Anonymous Hannah said…

    Fascinating, Helen. Must admit this isn't at the top of my list to must-eats, but it's an interested read :)

  • At 3/11/2011 12:52 pm, Anonymous TN said…

    Just a small point, but balut is known in Thai as khai luuk (ไข่ลูก), not kahi luuk.

  • At 3/11/2011 2:36 pm, Blogger Brenda said…

    I was waiting for you to open up and unfold the embryo completely.
    Thanks for the post....not something I'd like to try myself, but it's fascinating to know and learn about.

  • At 3/11/2011 5:21 pm, Anonymous Maria @ Scandi Foodie said…

    Fair enough, what might sound strange to some is a delicacy for others. I personally could not eat this, but then again I think many people wouldn't some of favourite foods from Finland.

  • At 3/11/2011 5:28 pm, Blogger YaYa said…

    Yours doesn't look too bad, a bit like an egg shaped brain. I've seen versions where the embryo is a bit more developed and you get a beak as well as feathers!

  • At 3/11/2011 6:50 pm, Anonymous steph@chefsarmoury said…

    Cannot fathom eating this. Def. not culturally inclined.
    Visual appeal is a big thing to me. Though perhaps if it was deep fried ... no still could not do it

  • At 3/12/2011 3:32 am, Blogger Fey said…

    oh, yumm! I am Filipino, this is a treat for me :)

  • At 3/12/2011 7:27 am, Blogger Unknown said…

    Really thoughtfully written post Helen (as always) not sure if I could eat this - but as you say I am keeping an open mind!

  • At 3/12/2011 10:02 pm, Anonymous sara @ Belly Rumbles said…

    Helen, is it served warm or cold? I am familiar with balut only via the TV. Part of me really wants to try it, but part of me feels I may cave in at the last moment, hmmm should get Josh to have a go ;p

  • At 3/12/2011 11:18 pm, Anonymous Adrian (Food Rehab) said…

    Balut Balut! That's all I heard when I was in Phils LOL

    Love it. Although, I don't eat the whole thing...

  • At 3/13/2011 9:34 am, Anonymous nuggnuggs said…

    How much was it?

  • At 3/13/2011 6:37 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi all - Thanks for your comments. I was a little worried that the images might offend, but I'm impressed that so many of you wanted more graphic images instead!

    Hi TN - Thanks for letting me know. I've corrected this typo now.

    Hi Sara - The egg is served warm and lol, I like how Josh comes in handy!

    Hi nuggnuggs - Sorry I forgot to make a note of the cost, from memory about $5?

  • At 3/13/2011 9:10 pm, Blogger Angie Lives to Eat (and Cook)! said…

    Even to this day I can't bring myself to eat the young duck though I will happily eat the yolk if my parents will take the little duck embryo from me which they usually are cool with because the yolk is too rich for them. I thought that the rau ram was Vietnamese mint?? And definately think your photos are pretty tame. It's not the thought of eating a young duck that stops me, it's the thought of eating a bird with a beak and bones still intact (even though I know at that stage they wouldn't have really developed them properly yet).

  • At 3/13/2011 11:16 pm, Blogger Rita (mademoiselle délicieuse) said…

    I was expecting more graphic photos too! Not sure whether I'd eat this, but I have known people to find images of a whole roast suckling pig confronting. They will happily eat it if not associated with the piggy's face however.

    So I suppose it's the little face which the eater associates with a little life which, really, they should do with every animal.


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