Experience “Balut” Filipino Food Trip
A balut is a fertilized bird egg (usually a duck) which is incubated for a period of 14 to 21 days depending on the local culture and then boiled or steamed. The contents are eaten directly from the shell. Balut that are incubated for longer periods have well-developed embryo and the features of the duckling are recognizable. The partially-developed embryo bones are soft enough to chew and swallow as a whole. The mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchus), also known as the “Pateros duck”, is considered to be the most important breed for egg production to make balut.
Balut is a common street food in the Philippines and other localities, and is also sold in stores and malls. It is a relatively cheap source of protein and calcium. Balut was introduced to the Philippines by the Chinese around 1885 and since then, balut has been included as a traditional part of the culture. Wherever Filipinos migrated for work, a large market for balut would develop. Controversies arose as knowledge of the food spread around the South East Asian countries and then globally. People questioned the ethics of eating balut.
Traditionally, the fertilized eggs are incubated in the sun or buried in sand, and stored in baskets to retain warmth. In order for the embryo to develop normally, it must be exposed to heat for the correct period of time, while ensuring that the temperature is not too hot to harm the eggs or too cold to prevent growth. The embryo is very sensitive to high temperatures, and is easily killed upon cooking in the sun. After nine days, the eggs are held to a light to reveal the embryo inside. The production of balut depends on egg maturation cycles, where the egg begins developing and changes in texture. Throughout these various maturation periods, different temperatures are required to accentuate the specific egg and embryo characteristics. Within the first few stages of maturation, balut is known as “balut sa puti” (“wrapped in white”) when it is white; the embryo inside is insufficiently developed to show a beak, feathers or claws, and the bones are undeveloped. These are made from very specific egg types, less than five days old and with no visible surface cracks.
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The duration of egg incubation is a matter of local preference. In the Philippines, balut is generally incubated for 14 to 18 days before being boiled for consumption. At about 14 to 16 days of incubation, the embryo floats on top of the egg white and yolk, and the balut is called “mamatong”. The ideal balut is said to be 17 days old.
There are other versions of balut. In the Cambodian version, “pong tia koun”, the egg is incubated for 18 to 20 days. In the Vietnamese version, “hot vit lon”, the egg is incubated for 19 to 21 days, when the embryo is old enough to be recognizable as a baby duck and has bones that will be firm but tender when cooked. Some men prefer to eat an embryo that is much more developed, “…so that it looks gross, because that is a way to prove your manhood.”
During the cooking process, changes occur in the food chemistry of balut, such as the sol dispersion of water molecules within the embryonic fluid. This liquid becomes the broth for the solid which are parts of the duck within the egg. Although balut mainly consists of protein, fat is present and is emulsified within the fertilized embryo. After cooking, it can be considered a protein gel (depending on the length of time it was cooked). Heating high-protein food such as balut can cause the chemical changes to take place and fully or partially denature proteins, causing the surface to become thick and causing an irreversible gel protein to form.
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Temperature has a huge impact on the final taste and texture of the cooked balut. Warm temperatures of 29–30 °C (84–86 °F) change the taste and texture of the yolk by making it more grainy. This can be attributed to the changes in proteins, and their partial denaturation, during the heating and incubation process. When boiling or cooking eggs, the white of the egg tends to solidify because the proteins are denatured in an irreversible reaction and turn from transparent to an opaque white. Physical and chemical changes in the final balut product can also be attributed to microbial infections and the rate that microbes infect the balut at various stages.
There are many chemical changes that occur inside the duck egg as it is being processed, which can vary depending on how or what it is cooked with. While boiling, added salt can contribute to a number of chemical changes; it seems to increase the proportional weight of egg white within the shell, which can be due to the weight differences between the embryo and the egg white itself. Added salt can also increase the hardness of the egg yolk and affect the overall texture of the final balut product. Other chemical changes are observed in nutrient content of the duck egg as it is processed are a slight decrease in the amount of available amino acids, water-soluble vitamins and minerals after the processing is complete.
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In the Philippines, balut eaters prefer salt, or a chili, garlic, and vinegar (white or coconut sap) mixture to season their eggs. The eggs are savored for their balance of textures and flavors; the broth surrounding the embryo is sipped from the egg before the shell is peeled, and the yolk and young chick inside can be eaten. All of the contents of the egg may be consumed, although the white albumen may remain uneaten depending on the age of the fertilized egg. This white albumen may have an unappetizing cartilaginous taste and is tough and rubbery in texture. In the Philippines, balut have recently entered haute cuisine by being served as appetizers in restaurants, cooked adobo style, fried in omelettes or even used as filling in baked pastries. In Vietnam, balut are eaten with a pinch of salt, lemon juice, plus ground pepper or ginger and Vietnamese mint leaves called rau răm. In Cambodia, balut are eaten while still warm in the shell and are served with nothing more than a little garnish, which is usually a mixture of lime juice and ground pepper. According to popular belief, these eggs are a nutritious and restorative food for pregnant or delivering women.
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