“Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg before it is broken.”
–MFK Fisher, “How to Cook a Wolf”
Few foods conjure up strong reactions like the popular Filipino street food, balut. The delicacy, which consists of a duck embryo, about 14-17 days old, but still in its shell, has endured a kind of shock treatment from American media culture. Think Fear Factor and Survivor.
Margaret Magat first published an article about the food in 2002 and is writing a book titled Balut: the folklore of fertilized duck eggs. The author and scholar says she’s seen a shift from balut as the target of an American media dedicated to the sensational and exotic to a more nuanced re-emergence of the food to reclaim Filipino identity. “There’s a consciousness from older generation to first generation Filipinos, wanting to go back to their roots,” she said in a recent phone interview in which she described balut as a newfound symbol of Filipino heritage.
This resonates with Nicole Ponseca, owner of the popular East Village Filipino restaurants, Maharlika and Jeepney. Two years ago, Ponseca, whose restaurants are known for embracing the kitschy side of Filipino culture, joined forces with a few friends and started a Balut Eating Contest on the Lower East Side of Manhattan: “I am inspired by the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, I love how they get everyone together at the beginning of the summer… I am always thinking of ways to bring (Filipinos), old and young, together.”
The 2nd Annual contest was held last August at the Hester Street Fair and drew a crowd of both Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike. Twelve contestants battled it out to see who could eat the most eggs in five minutes. Wayne Algenio defended his title winning for the second year in a row and shattering his previous record of 18 balut with a whopping 37.
The origin of balut is hard to pinpoint, but Margaret Magat’s article, attempts to piece together its history: “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.” Regardless of how the tiny egg became a part of Filipino cuisine, it provides an interesting snapshot into the country’s history and culture.
Here are five notable facts–cultural tidbits all too often lost in the American media hype and hoopla.
1. A Balut a Day…
keeps the doctor away! According to the Food Composition Table for Use in East Asia, eating a single balut packs a punch in terms of nutrition: 188 calories, 13.7 grams of protein, 14.2 grams of fat, 116 milligrams of calcium, 2.1 milligrams of iron. Ming-Chin Yeh, Associate Professor of Nutrition at the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College, speculated, “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.”
2. Cramming Balut (while cramming for exams)
Balut vendors in the Philippines often sell outside of colleges and universities because the egg is believed to make you smarter. (Magat believes this repuation has its origins in parents encouraging their children to eat it for nutritional purposes as described above.) Emilia David, a New York City graduate student who is originally from Manila, said that several of her family members “swear its good for the brain” and explained that her cousin back home always tries to eat balut before exams. She added that there’s no proof that it actually helps, but it’s her cousin’s confidence booster.
3. Balut Lover
In Balut to Barbecue: Philippine Streetfood, Doreen Fernandez, notes that it is “popularly believed to be an aphrodisiac, or at least to have invigorating powers, and so is sold even in the late evenings and early mornings.” The focus here is men, not women. Magat explains in her article “this belief in balut as an aphrodisiac for men only came about when the Spaniards introduced the concept of ‘machismo’…” She notes there is no scientific evidence of sexual potency and virility, but men believe they have more stamina, and in return are viewed as better lovers. Not a bad deal for both partners!
4. The Ghost of Balut
There is also supernatural lore connected to balut. According to these beliefs, people should stay away from balut or risk becoming an aswang–a supernatural creature who craves human flesh. These beings are usually female and likened to blood-sucking vampires. Magat’s research showed that “the fear of balut vendors and peddlers being aswang surfaced in the stories of the folk.”
Salt is often used to ward off these creatures says Magat because it is believed to be a neutralizer, or purifying agent. However, she is quick to add, “salt shouldn’t be taken too seriously as an extension of the fear of the aswang, or as a purifying agent: after all, supernatural beings aside, salt does tend to make everything taste better.”
5. For the Love of Balut
While, balut has been mentioned as a symbol of Filipino heritage, it is also considered a symbol of courage, especially for non-Filipinos. Melissa Cardenas-Dow, a science librarian, who was born in the Philippines and now lives in Redlands, California, explained “it is customary to eat a balut as a demonstration of commitment from marriage suitors, especially if the suitors are not Filipino. Usually this is a dare that is made by male members of a girl’s family.” She joked that her relatives still lament that her American husband of 18 years escaped the test.