FOOD EXPEDITIONS: The curious case of Balut – Is eating duck embryos actually safe?

Many tourists who flock to the Philippines have probably heard about Balut at least once, sometimes from locals who could barely hide their amusement.

If you haven’t heard of it, Balut (also called “Balot”) is a boiled duck egg that is popularly sold as a street delicacy in the Philippines. Sounds common? Wait until you see what’s inside — a nearly developed duck embryo with a noticeable pair of eyes!

Ethical dilemmas aside, Balut is quite a snack. It has a mild savory taste that’s akin to a chicken soup, best paired with salt or vinegar. Most locals eat the actual duck embryo but there are those who prefer not to. You may find the duck’s texture crunchy because of the developed bones, but it’s still easily chewable. Meanwhile, the softer parts have the sensation of “melting” inside your mouth. There is also the hardened yolk which you shouldn’t miss out on, especially for its very creamy texture.

Balut. (CREDIT: Florentino Floro)

In the Philippines, Balut has been a treat for a long time already. The name literally means “wrapped” because the eggs are wrapped inside bags during the incubation process.

It is said that duck eggs and the practice of incubating them before consumption originated in China when refrigerators didn’t exist yet and the purpose was to extend the eggs’ shelf life. In China, they call it “Maodan” which means “feathered” because the duck’s hair is already visible when you eat it.

Chinese traders brought this practice to the Philippines in the sixteenth century. During that time, a local municipality that had an abundance of Mallard ducks in the country popularized what is now known as Balut. At present, it is so on-demand that 80% of total duck egg production in the Philippines is for this dish alone.

So, how is Balut made? 

Balut is a product of incubating duck eggs. Locals do this using a large woven basket called “Taong” where they keep the eggs inside for 18 days until the eggs are nearly developed. On the 5th day, the makers would determine whether the eggs turned out to be Balut. They do this by putting the eggs in front of candles (or light bulbs) to see if the eggs are fertilized or not. If not, the eggs are separated and become “Penoy” which are sold as hard-boiled instead.

Meanwhile, the eggs that appear fertilized are marked and heated again to become Balut.

This process of preparing eggs is popular in other Asian countries too, such as Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand.

The question is, aside from its unique visuals, is Balut actually safe to eat?

The answer is yes, Balut is more than safe to eat. The eggs are even considered healthy and recommended for their nutritious qualities. They contain proteins, have 188 calories, 2 mg of iron, and 116 mg of calcium. A Balut also has Vitamin C for immune system support and beta carotene which has antioxidant properties.

If there’s one thing people should look out for, it’s the Balut’s yolk. One contains around 359 mg of cholesterol, which is more than the recommended daily cholesterol intake. 

Taking things in moderation is the key. 

Aside from these nutritional facts, locals also have some superstitions around eating Balut. For one, there is a belief that if you eat it while you are pregnant, your baby would become hairy. Such beliefs are called “Paglilihi,” a myth that a pregnant woman gets highly influenced by what she eats or watches– and these are often based on superstitions. 

Relating to pregnancy, Balut is also believed to be a natural aphrodisiac because of its high protein content that gives people a rush of energy. That may be why Balut is so popular during nighttime.  

These beliefs, however, have yet to be proven by medical evidence. 

As a food that gets featured a lot in travel sites, Balut is often known as an “exotic” treat. It may not exactly be the most appetizing food you’ll hear about, but there is a reason that Filipinos love it. Aside from its amazing taste, eating Balut gives you a unique experience that welcomes you to a warm culture. To locals, it delivers a feeling of being right at home, one thing that they also would like you to feel. 

WORDS: Nadine Lacuarta

IMAGE: Florentino Floro.

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