The History of Balut
Photo Courtesy of CNN
By Kristine Cannon
I vaguely remember the first time my Filipino mother ate balut.
“What is this purple egg?” I asked her, as she carefully placed a carton into the cart at the local Asian market. “It’s balut,” she responded casually. “Ba-what?” I asked. “Balut. Basically, a duck, in an egg.” I looked at her and immediately asked, “So, you eat it like normal eggs?” She laughed and simply answered, “No.”
I remember her boiling the eggs. “OK, that seems normal…” I thought to myself. But it wasn’t until she finished cooking it, cracked open the shell and salted it that she held it out to me and asked if I wanted to try it. I stared at it with wide eyes and vigorously shook my head, giving her offer a hard pass.
It was puzzling to me why anyone would eat a boiled developing duck embryo. But for my mother and all Filipinos, it’s truly an iconic delicacy.
The history of balut
According to a study in 2007, Chinese traders and migrants brought the custom of eating fertilized duck eggs to the Philippines around the 17th century. It’s also said the origin is from Chinese’s “Maodan,” or “feathered egg.” However, it is the Filipinos who perfected the craft of balut-making and made the dish so popular.
Photo Courtesy of Kawaling Pinoy
In an article written by Margaret Magat in 2002 titled “Balut: Fertilized Duck Eggs and Their Role in Filipino Culture,” Magat also credits the Chinese: “The influence of the Chinese may perhaps explain the presence of balut in the country. Many books on Chinese food tend to mention salted duck eggs, tea eggs and century-old duck eggs, but a sprinkling of words do mention fertilized duck eggs.”
Why people eat balut and its surprising benefits
First off, balut is an easy and relatively cheap protein source for people to eat. Considering it’s a common street food in the Philippines, it makes sense. But that’s not the only reason Filipinos eat it.
Balut is known for its nutritive values. Just one balut is 188 calories, 13.7 grams of protein, 14.2 grams of fat, 2.1 milligrams of iron and 116 milligrams of calcium, according to the Food Composition Table for Use in East Asia. Associate Professor of Nutrition at the CUNY School of Public Health, Ming-Chin Yeh, tells Open City magazine (found on the Asian American Writers’ Workshop): “Its nutritional value will be similar to that of an egg, except that it may have a lower cholesterol content as egg yolk is used up for the embryo development.”
In Magat’s article, a balut distributor Butch Coyoca tells her that balut can take the place of vitamins. “It’s like a powerbar, a superfood,” he says. It is also widely believed in the Philippines that balut is an important source of calcium, so pregnant women and sick people were urged to eat it.
Balut is also believed to make you smarter. In fact, balut vendors in the Philippines sold outside of colleges and universities. While there’s no proof of its ability to make one smarter, it’s believed balut gives students an energy boost to get them through an all-nighter.
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But wait, there’s more: Balut is highly regarded as an aphrodisiac, “or at least have invigorating powers,” according to Doreen Fernandez in an article titled “Balut to Barbecue: Philippine Streetfood.” Filipino men would gather around in the evenings to pair balut with beer. And while there’s no scientific evidence of its virility, men believed they had more stamina after consuming balut.
But probably the most interesting and bizarre balut belief? That eating it would turn you into an aswang, or a supernatural creature that craves human flesh. But don’t worry: Should you encounter an aswang, you can use salt to ward them off.
Journal of Japan Society of Cookery Vo 1.40, No. 4, 231-238 (2007): https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/cookeryscience1995/40/4/40_231/_pdf
Balut: “Fertilized Duck Eggs and Their Role in Filipino Culture” by Margaret Magat, Western Folklore, Vol. 61, No. 1 (Spring, 2002): https://www.jstor.org/stable/1500289?seq=12#page_scan_tab_contents