Before I got to eat my balut, my kids had to offer it a tearful eulogy. They took turns cradling the egg, passing it back and forth hot potato-style, apologizing to it on behalf of their terrible father. They did all this in between bites of perfectly grilled pork, dragged through the same thin, savory dipping sauce served alongside my egg. The irony didn't dawn on my children until I pointed it out.
This was my first go at balut, the dish of fertilized duck egg (embryo and all) served throughout Southeast Asia. It's a common snack food in the region, often coming in a form that some find, shall we say, challenging. Many versions come with fully recognizable fowl, complete with crunching bones and feathers. PJ Stoops's version at Foreign Correspondents takes a more subtle approach.
The trick, Stoops told me, is that his producer — Sameth Nget, the Rosharon-area Cambodian farmer who supplies Foreign Correspondents with much of its seasonal and specialty produce — allows the duck embryo to develop for a scant 14 days, a full week less than tends to be common. This results in a far less recognizable duck, and a far tamer experience. If what you're after is shock food, this isn't the balut you're looking for. You can go about your business. Move along.
I explained all of this to my kids before getting down to business. I explained that there really is no such thing as "normal" where food is concerned, the very notion itself subject to the whims of time, place and cultural temperament. I pointed out that, in its cultural epicenter, balut is as common a street food as tacos or hot dogs might be here. I mentioned the various "normal" Western and American foods that strike people raised in other food traditions as bizarre or off-putting. It was to no avail. Balut is weird and I am a monster. You win some, you lose some.
When you order balut at Foreign Correspondents, it comes with a much-needed set of instructions, assuming you're a first-timer. Your server will present the egg on a platter, along with a small spoon and bowl, a dish of dipping sauce, and a sheaf of herbs (pak pai, better known in Houston by its Vietnamese name, rau ram). She'll guide you through the mechanics of the thing, telling you how best to proceed and what to expect.
Here's how it goes:
- Shell Top Removal
Using the dainty spoon, crack around the perimeter of the egg, about two thirds of the way up, with the narrower end up. The white settles to the bottom (wider end). You need to strike the egg fairly hard; duck eggs are tough customers. Once you've cracked your way around, pry off the cap of the eggshell and set aside.
- Duck-Shot/Balut Consommé
Floating at the top of the balut you'll find a thin liquid, perhaps with a slick of fat gilding the surface. You have two options: slurp it straight from the shell or drain it off into the small bowl provided, and take it like a shot. I chose the latter, simply for fear of making a mess of myself. Spending the rest of the day covered in duck embryonic fluid didn't sound like the way to go. Rich and delicate, the liquid is clean and bright, neither fatty nor thin, and tastes like a concentrated broth with just an edge of minerality.
- Duck "Oyster"
This is how my server described the embryo itself, and it's a pretty apt description. The duck embryo rests atop the cooked yolk. It's a nebulous, grayish blob, and you pull it from the shell with that little spoon, seasoning it with a bit of the supplied sauce. Some people cut it in half, but I decided to treat it like the oyster it was described as. It was mildly gelatinous, with just a hint of graininess. Flavor-wise, it was oddly blank, aside from a sort of general richness. There was bit of organ funk, much more a whisper than a shout, but the experience was mostly textural. No crunch of bones, though. No feathers.
- "Sweep the Egg"
After the duck-shot and the "oyster," there's the yolk, to be scraped from the shell with that little spoon. If you weren't already aware of this, it's veiny. Really veiny. Oddly, though, you don't really notice them, at least not in taste or texture. This part of the experience is pretty straightforward. The yolk tastes like yolk. A bit richer, again with that slightly metallic organ tang. Texture-wise, it's halfway between fluffy and creamy. Like a hard-cooked yolk with zero chalkiness and a bit more moisture. Pudding-like, almost. It was at this point that I employed the sauce and herbs, adding a punch of flavor.
- "The Rock"
At the bottom of the shell, the egg white hardens to a calcified little lump. Do not eat it. I mean, you can't, but don't bother trying. It's a rock.
If you're expecting a harrowing experience, you won't get one. No gore, little shock value, no tiny bird eyes judging you as you raise the spoon to your lips. Of course, if your kids/friends/family are anything like mine, they'll take up the cause on behalf of the bird. Meet their gaze head-on. Embrace the fact that your experience, your food, your cultural comfort zone is not the only one with relevance. It is often said that food is the best way to come to understand another culture. While I lean increasingly toward the position that this idea is shallow and surface-level at best, I do believe that food can be a great doorway to the path that leads to understanding. Order the balut. Open the door. When faced with the stares of fellow diners who aren't ready to turn that particular knob — or to crack that particular shell — you'll at least know that you've shown them that the door is there.
I knew going in that my kids weren't ready. I expected their reaction. I didn't expect the aftermath of it. After it was all said and done, after we'd paid the check, after we'd driven halfway home, they started to ask questions. While I didn't particularly enjoy my balut (I found it bland, on the whole), this alone made it a worthwhile order.
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