Balut: Fertilized Duck Eggs and Their Role in Filipino Culture

Article excerpt

"Whoever discovered balut stumbled onto the fact that food has changing excellences (taste, texture) as it evolves and develops. Thus between the egg and the full-grown duck, there are stages that bear exploring-and eating. And the Filipino has explored them and evolved the culture of balut."

Doreen Fernandez in "The World of Balut"

This essay illustrates how consumption of one particular food, fertilized duck eggs, can reveal the interplay between food, beliefs, culture and history. Called balut in the Philippines or hot vit lon in Vietnam, fertilized duck eggs are also familiar in the food customs of Chinese, Laotians, Cambodians and Thais. Socio-cultural factors, not just nutritional reasons dominate its consumption. Using historical and literary sources, as well as fieldwork data culled from 25 balut eaters, two balut distributors and a duck farmer as well, I will explore what it is about balut that makes eating it desirable. Why ingest something that may already have bones, feathers and a beak? For Filipino and other Asian Americans, there are alternative sources of protein, (which is not the case for many in the Philippines who do not have the luxury of choice).

"Eating is usually a more complicated function than just taking nourishment" wrote food scholar Kurt Lewin. The complexities involved in the eating of balut, or any other food for that matter, has since been explored by a number of folklorists and anthropologists. Food scholarship has ranged from food as a semiotic system (Theophano 1991; Douglas 1966 & 1972; Weismantel 1988), to how consumption is tied to psychological and economic factors (Lewin 1942; Richards 1932), to the way food defines ethnicity (Brown and Mussell 1984; Georges 1984; Kalcik 1984). However, much of the debate between food scholars is between the materialists, led by Marvin Harris and Marshall Sahlins, and symbolic theorists such as Mary Douglas and Claude Levi-Strauss. Harris agrees that food may have symbolic meaning, but before anything else, "food must nourish the collective stomach before it can feed the collective mind" and whatever foods are eaten, "are foods that have a more favorable balance of practical benefits over costs than foods that are avoided (bad to eat)" (Harris 1985:15). For Douglas, however, food embodies a code, and the messages in it can be seen in "the pattern of social relations" (1972:61). Who is being excluded or included can be gleaned from the food categories and meal patterns; for example, drinks are reserved for strangers and acquaintances while meals are for intimate friends and family (Douglas 66).

In the case of balut, both symbolic and material explanations can illuminate the reasons why people would eat embryonic duck eggs. Although it is always eaten boiled, and never raw, eating balut requires the consumption of something in the fetal stage, and psychological, cultural, and socio-economic factors must all be considered. Generally sold late at night or early morning, balut is consumed by Filipino males for its alleged aphrodisiac properties, while women eat it for reasons such as energy and nutrition, but never as a sexual stimulant. As one informant put it bluntly, balut as an aphrodisiac is "para lang sa lalaki ito" (it is just for men).

Eaten usually as a snack, and not a formal food, fertilized duck eggs have been described to be as "popular in Manila as hotdogs in the United States" (Maness 1950:10). Although at one point, balut may have been prevalent only in the Luzon region, and not in other areas of the Philippines, it has been hailed the country's "national street food" (Fernandez 1994:11). Balut is so deeply embedded in Philippine culture that it has inspired everything from a hit record song about the distinctive howling calls of balut vendors in the late night and early morning to dishes in Filipino haute cuisine. Indeed, the love affair of Filipinos with fertilized duck eggs has been carried by immigrants to the United States. …