Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Some Balut History: Duck Eggs to Quail Eggs

Balut! For many non-Asian Americans, your sole experience with Balut might have been seeing it eaten on such reality shows as Fear Factor and Survivor.  If so, you probably have a negative view of this delicacy, as it was generally presented as something gross or disgusting to eat. Its cultural significance wasn't sufficiently discussed and although it might seem unusual, many Asians thoroughly enjoy this dish. 

On my recent journey to southern Vermont, I, and a few of my friends, had the opportunity to try Quail Balut, and we all did so. It actually was tasty and I suspect many more people would enjoy it, if they pushed aside their pre-conceptions and tried it. 

I'll discuss my own Balut experience further in another article tomorrow, but now, I want to discuss the idea of Balut and then provide a history of Balut mentions in U.S. newspapers, to learn how Americans have viewed it over the years. 

Balut is basically an unhatched egg, which contains an embryo, and is most often a duck egg. It's thought that it might have originated in China, where it traveled to the Philippines around the later part of the 19th century. In the Philippines, it acquired its name, Balut, and primary fame, although it's also found in a number of other Asian nations, from Cambodia to Vietnam. It's name, balut, .roughly translates as “wrapped”, referring to how the embryo is commonly wrapped in a whitish covering. 

Duck eggs are preferred for Balut as they have a stronger shell and shell membrane, much better than chicken eggs. The eggs are typically incubated for about 16-18 days, when the embryo is not yet fully developed. The longer the incubation period, the more developed the embryo so the bones and beak in older eggs might be crunchier. 

In the Philippines,  it's traditionally a street food, sold by vendors mainly during the evening, until dawn, and they often shout out an exaggerated "Balut" to draw in customers. The eggs are boiled and you're supposed to eat it out of the shell. First, you break open a small opening at the top of the egg and then drink the "broth" or "soup." Then, you crack the rest of the shell open and eat the embryo and yolk, often putting maybe a little salt or vinegar atop it. There is also a tiny part called the bato, or rock, attached to the embryo and yolk, which most people don't consume as it can be tough and difficult to eat. 

In Vietnam, they enjoy Balut as well and refer to is as trứng vịt lộn or hột vịt lộn, which roughly translate as “duck egg” or “duck flavor,” They commonly eat it with salt, pepper, and a side of rau răm, a Vietnamese green that resembles cilantro in some ways. The Vietnamese also enjoy Balut made from quail eggs, although duck eggs receive the vast majority of attention. 

Let's explore how the U.S. has perceived Balut over the years in the newspapers.

One of the first American newspaper references to Balut was in the Sioux City Journal (IA), June 6, 1910, in an article about Manila, Philippines. It stated, “As we passed out we noticed the refreshment vendors that lined the path to the street car, and especially the women by the score, who were selling eggs. We supposed they were ordinary boiled eggs, but we rode back to town by choice in a second class car with the natives and discovered our mistake. It seems the Filpinos take the eggs from under a hen or duck just before they are ready to hatch and boil them. They are called ‘balut,’ and form the great Filipino delicacy, the man on the seat next to me, who was contentedly eating one, informing me that six or eight would be a fair allowance for a man.” 

This is generally how many early newspaper references to Balut were presented, in travel accounts by those visiting the Philippines. It was seen as something exotic, a strange delicacy loved by Filipinos. And as we see, Balut has been known to Americans for over a hundred years. 

In the Lexington Herald (KY), February 24, 1919, there was a brief item about Balut, noting, “Over in the Philippine Islands the refreshment and lunch stands sell baluts as a great delicacy. Of course, the American reader never heard of a balut which looks like a hard boiled duck egg. However, these eggs have been boiled after the eggs have been incubated for 19 days. These cooked, unhatched, young ducks have a very agreeable flavor and are eagerly bought by the Filipinos.” 

This article was repeated in numerous other newspapers across the country, presenting one of the first Balut references that many Americans might have experienced. Although the idea of Balut might not have sounded palatable to Americans, it was presented in a positive manner so it might have intrigued some. 

The New Castle News (PA), April 24, 1924, presented an article titled, Half-Hatched Egg Filipino Delicacy. The article stated, “Baluts are half-hatched ducks’ eggs. They are sold by itinerant venders and are considered a great delicacy. The town of Pateros, near Manila, is engaged exclusively in the ‘balut’ industry.” Again, the article wasn't negative, although many Americans might have been squeamish about a half-hatched egg. 

The article then continued, quoting President Camilo Osias, of the National University, “Some foreigners laugh at baluts. Ignorant folks! They don’t know what they’re talking about. We, whose tastes have been educated, know better. Hermetically sealed, it is hygenic. The most perfect, and most complete, food packed in a small space—that is balut. It has soup, it has egg, it has meat, and it has bread. The balut makes a complete meal." More positivity.

There are two types of Balut, which were described in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin (HI), June 11, 1931, reprinting a clipping from a Manila newspaper. “There are two kinds of balut—The hairy one—And the juicy, cheesy brand. There are persons who are not particular as to what kind of balut they get, so long as they do not miss the chick either full-grown or half-grown. But the great majority of customers demand the cheesy brand, with the chick just about taking form, and well covered with a whitish substance that hides the feathers.” The cheesy type would likely be more amenable to non-Asians, who have never tried Balut. 

There was a brief mention in the Tucson Citizen (AZ), July 14, 1934, which printed, “...balut, a favored tid-bit of the Filipino which is a cross between a ten-year-old egg and a duckling. Duck eggs incubated for the hatching point are boiled and then laid away to age until mature enough for sale. They do not have an offensive odor, but most of us prefer younger eggs or older ducks.”

There was another brief mention in the Rayne-Acadian Tribune (LA), November 8, 1935. Unhatched ducklings, called baluts, are said to be a Philippine delicacy. They are eaten about ten days before their time to hatch if nature had been left to take its time-honored course. Eggs are hatched in sacks in the sun.”

How much for Balut? The Daily News (CA), July 2, 1949, mentioned, “A balut, it turns out, is a chicken or duck egg that has had the undivided attention of its mother for 14 days, or time for it to reach the embryo stage. Then it’s ready to eat. You can buy three for one peso or 50 cents American.” That would be nearly $6 in today's dollars. 

Balut and hot dogs? The Courier-Journal (KY), January 14, 1950, reported, “Balut is in brief an unhatched duckling relished by the people in and around Manila. These hard-boiled, about-to-hatch duck eggs are sold by peddlers along the streets, kept warm in well-covered baskets. When the Tagalogs eat Balut, ‘They crack the egg at one end, drink the juice, and then pick out the contents with their fingers.’ This dish is as popular as hot dogs here and is responsible for a flourishing duck-egg industry.”  Each culture has their own popular dishes. 

Balut and s spy scandal? In a lengthy article in the Daily World (LA), April 26, 1950, there was an intriguing article about how Balut vendors might be spies! The article began, “This may go on record as the year of the big ‘balut’ spy scare in Manila.” It then continued, describing Balut as “… an almost fully incubated but unhatched duck egg. Its contents are considered a delicacy by Filipinos and some foreigners but not by all foreigners. It goes well with beer, they say. Beer-and-egg, you understand, not egg-in-your-beer.” I wonder what other beverages might pair well with Balut.

Balut is commonly sold by street vendors and the article continued, “One of the familiar sounds in this capital of more than 1,000,000 potential egg eaters is the cry of the balut vendor making his rounds with a basket, in which the duck eggs are kept warm under a jute sack covering. Nobody knows how many balut vendors there are but they certainly number in the hundreds.” The vendors though were recently angry with the government. “These days the balut vendors are plenty annoyed. The police have been pulling them in by the dozens as spy suspects. The vendors even sent a delegation to detective headquarters to protest.”

Why were Balut vendors though to be spies? “The police can not be criticized for their security measures. Communist-inspired Huk outlaws have been battling government forces almost to the city limits and there have been strong indications of Huk infiltration into the capital.” The article also noted, “Somebody started a rumor that the Reds had sent their agents into Manila in the guise of balut salesmen. Not a bad idea, either, if true. The balut men are among the few who can roam the streets day and night without ordinarily arousing suspicion. They could give the town a good ‘casing.”; “Police suspicion was based partly on the fact that most balue venodrs work at night. The balut men explained that duck egg sales are better after dark.”

However, it was thought that the police should be more easily able to differentiate spies from authentic vendors. “To an impartial observer, it appears that the police could pick out the spies by their inexperienced balut calling. As in hog-calling, there is a big difference between a veteran balut-caller and a novice.” The article continued, “…the phony balut salesmen would have a tough tome imitating the lusty-lunged ‘baloooot’ or “bwoooot’ of the Tagalog tradesmen...If the caller hasn’t just the right baritone pitch, or if he pronounces the ‘oo’ like the ‘oo’ in toot rather than the ‘oo’ in foot, then there may be something more than just a red herring…” 

This is another article that was repeated in numerous other American newspapers, bringing attention to Balut to people all across the country.  

A Balut shortage? In a Balut article, the Spokane Chronicle (WA), May 31, 1951, first described it as, “Balut is made of duck eggs, ripened almost to hatching stage. These are cooked and pickled. Vendors have hawked them daily, shouting ‘B-A-A-A-L-U-U-U-T’ in every block.” However, it also noted, "Balut has an aroma stronger than limburger cheese.” There was a problem as the duck’s “favorite snail tidbits” were disappearing, and it was said, “No snails, no eggs.” The issue here was water pollution which was killing off some of the snails. 

An article in the Rocky Mount Telegram (ND), December 28, 1953, provided more details on the Balut industry.  In the Philippines, the Balut provided a livelihood for about 30,000 people, with an annual worth of about 6 ¾ million dollars. “Balut is eaten the year round by rich and poor, young and old, who consider it an appetizing, nutritious food. It has become an important item in the Filipino’s diet and is recommended, even by professional medical men, as an excellent bodybuilder.” 

How was Balut produced? “No costly modern machinery—only simple crude native bric-a-brac—is needed to produce balut.” The article continued, “A duck farm on a river or lake shoreline, bamboo enclosures for the birds, and a hut to house the balut ‘laboratory’ are all one needs to become a balut magnate.” And more, “Rows of big bamboo baskets and clay pots make up the lab. The baskets, where the eggs are placed for 15-18-day incubation, are submerged in rice husks which create and hold heat necessary for incubation. When the eggs have turned into two-thirds developed embryos, they are hard boiled.

An inexpensive activity. “Raising the ducks isn’t expensive either. They are penned in shallow parts of the river or lake close to the source of their food supply—small, fresh-water clams and snails.” And that is why a dearth of snails hurt the industry as it was one of the main foods of the ducks. 

The article concluded with information on enjoying Balut. “The egg is eaten warm. Its color is the same as any other duck egg, slightly gray-green. The Filipino gourmet cracks the shell at one end and sips out the juice. He then breaks away the rest, revealing a mixture of yolk and white, webbed with dark-red colored embryo.

Catnip? The Lincoln Star (NE), June 2, 1961, briefly stated, “It has medicinal properties—for a gentleman, balut is like catnip to a cat.” An intriguing analogy.

A religious controversy. The Charlotte News (NC), March 16, 1966, reported that the Vatican had recently ordered Philippine Catholics to stop eating meat on Fridays; “Under an old special church ruling, Filipino Catholics had been able to eat meat on Fridays if they wanted to.” The big question for Filipinos was then, is Balut meat or an egg? The Vatican was considering the issue but Rev. Bruno Arcenas, a young doctor of canon law at Bacolod Cathedral, stated that he believed it should be treated as an egg, and thus permissible to be eaten on Fridays. 

The Fort Lauderdale News (FL), March 14, 1971, reported that the duck egg industry in the Philippines was worth $10 million a year, with over 4.6 million ducks in the country. Prices for balut had been increasing, due to multiple reasons, including polluted rivers driving away snails and vendors being robbed. Over the years, Balut consumption has also been decreasing. Balut used to cost 20 centavos, but now they are 60 centavos, equivalent to a U.S. dime. The Balut industry was in danger, but would eventually rebound. 

During the 1990s, commercial duck feeds were introduced which helped solve the feed issue, where snails were dying off. This commercial feed also allowed duck farms to grow in size, to become larger-scale operations. No longer did duck farms need to be located next to a water source. They could be located almost anywhere, spreading the industry across the Philippines. 

Balut is currently available in the U.S. although it might take a little work to seek it out. 

Have you tasted Balut before? If so, what are your thoughts on it?

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