So I really had no idea what Balut was until it was shoved in front of me. I have a sort of peripheral awareness of the strangeness of Filipino food. A friend of mine used to date this guy who introduced me to pig’s blood/liver gravy (probably the only thing I’ve ever eaten that was “too rich”), and like many Southern Californians, I’m familiar with the puzzling menu at Jollibee. I’ve eaten a number of cuisines that are known for their novelty, but I have a distinct feeling that Filipino cuisine comes pretty close to the top of the list when it comes to weirdness – it has something to do with crazy ethnic history of the Philippines. Maybe Filipino food is futuristic – it’s what we will all be eating when globalization shakes out?
Anyways… So yesterday I was invited over to Jon Nakamura’s studio for lunch, with the promise of “eating chicken embryos.” I had no real idea what this meant until I was eating it – when I sat down at the table to eat, I presumed that the big shabu shabu that Jon had cooked up had the embryos, but I was wrong. But soon Raul Arellano, our resident Filipino artist, showed up and got the show on the road.
There was a lot of anticipation in the room while the Balut boiled away. Going over and looking at the eggs in the pot, there wasn’t much to see – just great big duck eggs in water – nothing extraordinary going on. A flat of Balut in the fridge is equally innocent looking. Even Edith was going to eat one, until the descriptions got a little too graphic for her. I think it was the gelatinousness of the still unformed embryonic duck head that got to her.
As usual, with food, the best way to tell the story is with pictures. I’m always hungry for pictures of food, myself.
Above – Here’s pretty much the scoop on Balut. You open up the still warm, just boiled Balut by cracking the round end of the egg with the back of a spoon, and start to pick away the shell and membrane (the membrane at this point has this beautiful veiny pattern on it – an aesthetic joy in itself). The inside of the Balut contains three things & flavours. The first thing you encounter is a juice, which tastes exactly like really, really good chicken soup (even though we are eating a duck here). If you grew up Jewish and had an aunt like mine, that light chicken flavour is probably one of your fondest Passover memories – all I need is a bowl full of it and a few rock hard, baby’s fist sized kneydlach, and you’re in heaven. You suck the juice out of the cracked egg – shown at top. You can season the juice and any other part of the Balut with salt, vinegar or hot sauce. I went with the hot sauce on the body of the Balut, but the juice needs nothing – it’s perfect.
Aside from the juice, most of the egg is filled by a neat division between the embryo and the yolk. The yolk is a hard boiled egg yolk, and is great with salt and Tabasco. The embryo is a tiny, delicious duck, with no real bones, feathers or other obstructions to make it hard to eat (these were at 16 days when we ate them). The head is a little unformed, and kind of gelatinous, but delicious and rich. Here’s an extreme closeup of the image above, you can really see the form and details of the baby duck in this image. The general flavour of the duck embryo is “light duck.” There’s really nothing too challenging or exotic going on here, really – the most striking thing about Balut is the ordinariness of the flavours, despite the unusual dish.
At the bottom of the egg, there’s a hard, inedible calcium deposit, that’s kind of bouncy like a superball when you take it out (you can see it here, in my “remains of Balut” picture). You don’t eat that, and apparently dogs love them as chew toys – too bad my dog wasn’t there to pig out, and I’m glad he doesn’t read my site or he’d be pissed that I didn’t bring some home for him. It’s easy to spot, and smooth, so you’re not going to bite into anything weird or inedible.
All in all, Balut is delicious. We’re eating bar food here, and as far as egg-based bar foods go, I’d pick a handful of these guys as side to my beer over a pickled egg any day of the week. I’m thinking about going out to the Filipino part of Carson and buying myself a carton of these and just laying around on a Sunday, drinking beer and pinching grey salt.
Above – Ceramist Yuichiro Roy Kunisaki eating Balut. One of the best things about eating Balut is watching other people eat Balut. They get all into sucking out the food from the egg. Roy seems to really like his Balut.
Above – That’s Raul Arellano working on his balut. He really goes at it, slurping the whole thing down quickly and efficiently. He was talking about eating eight of these in a sitting – I can totally understand that.
Above – Jon Nakamura going after the Balut, drinking the juice. It was also Jon’s first time eating Balut.
Above – Sorry, no Balut action shot for me. I wish I had a picture of me sucking the juice out of one of these guys, but I don’t. I think this was only the third or fourth time in my life I’ve cracked a boiled egg open – here I’m trying not to make a mess of things.