A note of caution: Balut is not for everyone. If you are offended by some forms of meat consumption, a difference of opinion or have a particularly volatile gag reflex, you may want to abandon this article now.
Love it or loathe it, there is no doubt that balut is of huge cultural significance in the Philippines and other countries across Asia. Whether this divisive delicacy makes you want to smack your lips together or battle your upchuck reflex, it is guaranteed to ignite your curiosity. So, let us indulge your interest with a deep dive into the balut egg.
With the help of our adventurous Facebook community, we unpick the history of this controversial Asian speciality, the ethics behind eating it and the cultural importance of balut in the Philippines.
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Filipino Balut: Everything You Need To Know
What is balut?
Balut is a fertilised duck egg, complete with a developing embryo. It is a popular delicacy across Southeast Asia and particularly in the Philippines, where it has been dubbed by some as the national street food snack.
The embryo is incubated for somewhere between 14-21 days before then being hard-boiled and eaten. By the time it comes to chow down on egg contents, the embryo will have developed eyes, a beak and even sometimes feathers. Who else is feeling slightly chicken now?!
The history of balut
It is probably fair to say that balut is an unusual snack, even for those with adventurous palates. So when and more importantly, why did people start eating fertilised duck eggs?
Well, much like several other odd Asian dishes, it is believed to have its origins in China. It is thought that the Chinese traders brought balut to the Philippines as far back as 1885. In Chinese, the name of these eggs is ‘mao dan’ which roughly translates to ‘feathered or hairy egg’. It has been theorised by some that balut could be a snack inspired by the famous Chinese century eggs (also delicious…).
Although it was the Chinese that introduced balut to the Philippines, the country quickly adopted the snack for their own, christening it with a Tagalog name. Balut derives its name from the word for ‘wrap’ which refers to how the embryo is covered with a whitish film.
After the introduction of balut across the country, the snack quickly became cheap, meaning it appealed to the working classes. As migration became more widespread across Southeast Asia, the snack spread to other parts of the region, including Vietnam and Laos.
Why do people eat balut?
While the origins of balut are interesting, we are still to address the rather large elephant in the room. Why did people begin eating balut?
For men at least, it seems to go back to those age-old myths about sexual vitality. That’s right, balut has been purported to be an aphrodisiac. Although the jury is out on whether balut actually does anything to fuel sexual arousal, it seems that these days, people eat balut mainly because they like the taste.
Balut has been claimed to have a number of health benefits. This low-cost snack contains a high level of protein, around 13.7 grams per egg. For comparison, 50 grams of beef jerky will contain around 16.5 grams of protein.
Despite the potential salmonella concern for some, in the Philippines, eating balut is actually thought to encourage safe pregnancy for women and is recommended for expectant mothers.
Trying balut in the Philippines
If you’re looking to sample a sip of that soupy surprise, you’ll need to know where to search for a balut vendor in the Philippines. Luckily they aren’t too hard to find.
Although in some areas you’ll find balut available throughout the day, vendors tend to come out around dark. It is the late-night snack of choice in the Philippines and one often consumed alongside a cheeky beer!
Vendors will peddle the streets looking for people to sell their wares to. Take it from us, you’ll usually hear them before you see them!
You can also find balut for sale at wet markets or on the street. A balut egg will cost in the region of around 15 PHP (around $0.30USD). It’s a very economical choice for brave backpackers!
How do you eat balut?
If you fancy yourself as an adventurous eater and still fancy trying balut, listen up. We’ve laid out a step by step guide to eating balut as the locals do.
- Locate the rounded end of the egg and lightly tap it on the table to make a crack in the shell. Once cracked, peel the shell off so that you have a hole around the width of your finger.
- The next step is to season the egg. Balut vendors will often have salt to sprinkle onto the egg contents but vinegar and chilli peppers are also popular choices.
- To mix the seasoning in with the egg, swirl it around or get something to stir the mix with.
- Slurp the broth from the hole that you have made in the shell.
- Once you’ve drunk the broth, you can pull apart the remaining shell to expose the meat. Some people like to roll the meat in a mix of the seasonings before eating.
- When it comes to eating the meat, you’ll see the yolk, the white and the chick. The yolk tends to be the favourite part for many as it has a creamy texture. Others prefer the chick, however, depending on how mature your egg is, you may get quite a crunch from the beak and bones of the embryos. The white (referred to as the bato, meaning stone) is edible, however, it can be tough and some people don’t like it.
What does balut taste like?
The above question is not simple to answer. After all, one man’s meat is another man’s poison! Instead of just giving you our opinions on what balut tastes like, we decided to reach out to our bold and intrepid South East Asia Backpacker Facebook Community to ask them about their opinions. This is what a few of them had to say:
“Yes [I’ve tried it], since I grew up in the Philippines. Looks impressive, but doesn’t really taste any different than chicken soup/egg.” – Luke
“My friend tried it in the Philippines and said it was absolutely horrendous! I was asked to try it as well but refused!” – Emma
“[It] tastes good, nice to put some pinch of salt and a bit of vinegar [on it].” – Charlotte
“Just tastes like egg!” – Gemma
Controversies around eating balut
In recent years, the concern over issues pertaining to animal welfare issues has continued to grow. Veganism has become less of a trend and more of a normalised way of life, both for environmental and ethical reasons. It isn’t just vegan travellers in Southeast Asia who might object to balut though.
Much like foie gras, balut has become a controversial food item the world over. This is largely due to how it is prepared and cooked. As the embryos have been allowed to develop, some believe that the practice of boiling the egg as a way to euthanise a fetus is inherently unethical.
Across the world, different rules and regulations surround the status of embryonic birds. In the UK, they are deemed protected once they have reached the final third of their incubation period. In Australia, the RSPCA says it does not support the boiling of duck embryos from the 18th day of incubation onwards as there is the potential for suffering.
There are also religious objections to this popular Filipino snack. In Judaism, followers are forbidden from eating the embryo of a bird inside an egg, regardless of whether the bird is kosher or not. In Islam, balut is regarded as a haram (forbidden) product as it has not been slaughtered in the prescribed way.
There are also some branches of Christianity that do not approve of eating balut. One such example is the Members Church of God International, a popular type of Christianity in the Philippines.
Eating balut around Southeast Asia
Although balut is a national food of the Philippines, it is actually eaten all over Southeast Asia. It is relatively easy to find balut in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Even though the snack is believed to have originated in China, it never really took off there. However, it is still possible to buy it in some southern parts of the country. While both Malaysia and Indonesia are predominantly Islamic countries, it is possible to find balut in the Chinese neighbourhoods.
The cultural importance of balut in the Philippines
Balut is a cornerstone of Filipino cuisine and culture. This economical snack is nutritious and served ready-to-eat, making it ideal for those on the go. Much like adobo, the food has become integral to Filipino identity and is a delicacy known the world over.
Commonly paired with a cold San Miguel, this snack has become synonymous with catching up with friends. Some also say it is good for hangovers but we couldn’t possibly comment on that!
Balut is so important to Filipinos that the municipality of Pateros in Metro Manila, known as the ‘Balut Capital’, has held a festival dedicated to this delicacy for more than three decades! It is held in early April and features live music, dancing, cooking competitions and of course, plenty of balut.
Although balut has been very important to Filipino culture over the years, the delicacy is now in decline. Several reasons have been cited for this including the urbanisation of duck-farming spaces and the westernisation of Filipino cuisine. In the current era of technology and convenience, it is certainly getting harder for traditional street vendors to compete with the fast-food giants.
Have you tried balut? Did you love it or hate it? Let us know in the comments!