Balut regularly tops lists of the world’s most disgusting foods (even beating out maggot-ridden, intestine-destroying illegal Sardinian cheese in one case). It’s used more as a challenge than food: emerging when someone needs a gross-out video to post to YouTube.
If you look harder, however, there is a refreshing underbelly of unapologetic duck fetus lovers posting careful how-to’s, loving self-shot videos, and even elaborate recipes featuring the egg.
I have had hột vịt lộn once, and its slightly smaller and less graphic cousin, fertilized quail egg (trứng cút lộn) once as well.
I tell the story in two parts. Part 1 takes place in Westminster, CA in the spring of 2012.
1. Hột vịt lộn
The first time I tried hột vịt lộn, I was blissfully unaware of either warring internet egg faction, having done only enough Googling to give me the facts. All I knew was that I walked by a weird elaborate egg store whenever I visited my favorite cơm tấm restaurant.
(thanks, Yelper Nick H)
It sold frozen yogurt and sugarcane juice, sure, but its centerpiece was eggs. Its exclusively Vietnamese clientele streamed in and out at all times of day carrying grocery bags full of strange, large, slightly dark-toned eggs, or small egg crates with steaming individual eggs covered in spice baggies and herbs.
(thanks, Yelper Cobra K.)
Sometimes they wouldn’t even make it out of the parking lot: I’d see their legs sticking out of their open car doors as they devoured the eggs in the drivers seat, leaving the shells on the pavement.
Whatever they were having, whatever they couldn't wait until they got home to eat, I wanted it.
When I walked up to the egg counter and ordered one uncooked fertilized duck egg, I expected skepticism or reticence, but the man behind it only tilted his head a little.
“Egg with baby,” he said. It was a statement, not a question.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Big baby or small baby?” he asked.
“Uh... small baby,” I told him, trying to sound like I knew what the hell was going on.
“Good,” he pronounced, and took my $2, handing me a whole egg crate with a lonely-looking egg perched in the corner.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to get you one?” I asked my boyfriend, Julian, when I got back outside. He had stayed firmly planted on the frozen yogurt side of the store throughout this whole transaction, and was now spooning it into his mouth without looking at the crate in my arms.
“No, I’ll try a bite of yours,” he said.*
At home, when the egg was cooked, peeled, and set in a bowl, one ‘bite’ was all he managed. “This is about as close as I ever get to throwing up,” he told me upon touching a microscopic speck of deep yellow yolk to his tongue, and withdrew from the kitchen.
For me, the duck fetus was not the problem. The Internet was the problem. I had vainly tried to find a website that would tell me how to cook the egg without also telling me how to feel about the egg, but this proved impossible. And it made me a little mad.
I'd never felt innately sick about an item of food before. I wasn't raised to believe that there was anything gross about the things that people ate.
Do we think of it as a kind of even more innocent, even more tortured veal? (If so, where is the intuitive revulsion to foie gras? The rage, yes, but where is the nausea? And why does masago not move us?)
Do we wince at a face staring back at us? (Then why do whole fried fish and roast pigs clenching apples in their jaws leave us unaffected?)
Is it the cute container, the animal in an egg like a candy prize from a vending machine, that unsettles us?
My bite tasted like a crunchy, rich, earthy albumin-soaked liver, and it was delicious with my eyes closed. The warm, paté-tasting broth that spilled from the top when the shell membrane tore, the small and curved yellow yolk, like a normal hard-boiled egg yolk, but richer-tasting and rippled, like a brain, and the unmistakable and vein-striped baby duck body, fetally curled and faintly feathered, all mingled like stew in a bite-size vessel.
The unease, however, persisted. Would I have been able to enjoy it fully had cultural preconceptions not wormed their way into my brain and wrapped themselves around my gut?
I know the answer, and the answer is yes. I know this because the second time I had a fertilized bird egg in my mouth, it was a surprise.
Part 2: Trứng cút lộn : tomorrow.
*Julian is a vegetarian, so I was not expecting him to take a bite of anything that still had a face. However, he rationalized that anything still in an egg was not yet an animal. I still find it extremely ironic that the literally the only person I knew who was willing to try balut was a vegetarian.