There’s a lot of weird vietnamese street foods to try out, and most people would agree that balut is one of the weirdest, and possibly most gross. I’m going to try and explain to you my own experience with balut, and also what it ultimately tastes like.
The interesting thing I’ve found with balut is that out of all the weird things I’ve eaten, or other people have eaten, this one is always met with the most disgust. People will listen to me talk about the one time I ate a dog, and they’ll think “oh the poor cute dog” but also “I guess I can imagine it, maybe try it one day, or if I’m starving.” But talk about a fertilised duck embryo and they’d chose to starve instead.
So for me, balut is a breakfast item. That or a really late evening snack. But like most vietnamese street foods, you can find it pretty much at any time if you look for it. I count it as a street food because you can find women walking around the streets with baskets hanging from their shoulders, and these eggs in those baskets. That’s about as street as it gets. But you can find it in establishments also.
I sometimes take my little cousin to eat one when I pick him up from school, as there is an old women with a plastic table and chairs outside on the sidewalk by his school. It’s healthy and has good proteins which is important for growing kids.
My family live near the Tô Lịch river in Hanoi, a poor area that only until recently still housed a lot of shanty town like housing. A couple of streets from our house was a shop who cooked rice congee and balut for breakfast, and sold it as their trade.
My memories of balut is one mornings when my family and I decide to eat balut for breakfast, we would walk to this shop, which was actually just the front room of someone else’s house (everyone’s work place was the front room of their house, with the front door open to the street) and we would order a bowl of rice congee with spring onions and a couple of balut eggs each.
It didn’t matter which order you ate them, but I don’t remember any of us eating them together. The balut would be served in a small bowl, sometimes already peeled but not always. The bowl would have a pinch of salt, some lime juice, grated or thinly sliced ginger and maybe a leaf or two of vietnamese mint. I never knew if all these ingredients were meant to be mixed with the egg, or if you were meant to dip the egg or what. I normally ate everything except the ginger which I found too strong.
Balut is fertilised duck eggs. Embryos, at around two weeks old, so you could see a duckling developed enough that it has eyes, a beak, organs, skin and sometimes even a few small feathers growing. This is what puts people off the idea of eating, the idea of eating a whole, baby animal.
It can be very graphic. But since I grew up with it, I didn’t find it disgusting in anyway. It made sense to me, we ate eggs before they fertilised, we ate ducks after they hatched, why not eat them in-between? They were going to get eaten anyway.
It was also really educational. I remember my cousin teaching me all about organs, because you could take the duckling embryo out, and you can see everything if you were really careful to prise it apart. Everything was still soft of course, so it was really easy to mush it up. But I remember understanding how a heart looked, how the small and large intestines related to each other in size.
But what does it taste like? I find describing taste very hard. Firstly, it doesn’t taste like chicken. It’s very much a meat, but I’d say the closest thing I could describe it to would be bone marrow, and that’s not really that close. It’s salty, but we do add a salt to it anyway. Some people have explained that it tastes rotten, but I don’t believe that at all.
Instead I’ll explain it in textures. There are three parts to a balut. The white, the yolk and the embryo. Some people are surprised by this, because they think there shouldn’t be anything else in the egg but the duck, this would be true if we cooked the eggs any time later than the 2 weeks normally done.
The white is extremely tough and rubber like. It’s like an eraser from school, when you get bored in class and you start to crumble it. It feels like that. It probably tastes like that too, only I never tried eating my eraser. I found the white part to be the least interesting. Some of my cousins love it though, because it’s a texture that’s hard to come by, it’s a texture that has bite to it.
The embryo itself is soft and squishy, as you would expect. The bones and beak are soft as well, but also just solid enough to give it a bit of crunch. The wings probably give the most problem, but after a couple of chews they just feel like straw. The organs sort of explode in your mouth, and my personal preference of eating is to take the organs out and eat them individually. This was mostly because I was so curious about learning more about them.
The yolk however, well that was my favourite part. People normally say to eat the embryo last, but I leave the yolk last because it’s my favourite part. Normally when it comes to eggs, the yolk has to be runny for me. I hate hard boiled eggs, the yolk turns crumbly in a way that makes it feel like paste in your mouth, and the taste is completely different. However with balut, the yolk is firmer and I love the texture and feel of biting into it and eating it. It’s not as crumbly, not in a paste way when you chew. It still tastes like runny yolk though, only it’s not runny.
I don’t eat it all the time. In fact, I eat it maybe only once whenever I go back to Vietnam. I like the taste, but I really have to be in the mood for it. That being said, should someone say “hey let’s go eat some balut” I wouldn’t say no to it. I also wouldn’t expect any of my friends visiting Vietnam to eat it if they didn’t want to. It’s not something you can’t live without, and I’ve heard it really is an acquired taste.