Savory, yummy, nutritious. This is how Filipinos think of fertilized duck eggs, more popularly known as balut. However, foreigners, upon seeing the chick inside the egg, think it’s rather disgusting to eat such kind of delicacy. However, the history of this food dates back to centuries ago — when the Philippines was a powerful nation; before it was ravaged by the adverse effects of colonization.
Balut was a remnant of the Philippines’ powerful past, a story of grandeur that dates back earlier than 14th century. Needless to say, tasting this history might just change your perspective about the food that some foreigners find disgusting, but is actually a symbol of our cultural connection between the past and the present.
Fertilized duck eggs have been a worldwide phenomenon thanks to its distinct flavors Westerners find rather exotic to the palate. However, the food, which is sometimes taken for granted because of its abundance, have a long history dating back from more than 500 years ago even before the Spanish set foot in the Philippine islands.
Before the 14th century, the Philippines, even before it was named as such, was already conducting trade with countries like Iran (Persia), Arabia, India, and most importantly China. During this time, commodities like pottery and gold were not the only products traded. Food, with its nutritional and economic value, was also able to reach far territories.
In the case of the Philippines, early Filipinos were fond of trading food items from the Middle Kingdom that was China. This possibly explains how balut reached the Philippine soil. While there is no actual mention of fertilized duck eggs in Chinese food literature the way Filipinos know it today, Chinese food history adequately mentioned similar products which could might as well be balut’s first cousins.
In Frederick Simoons Food in China: A Cultural and Historical Inquiry (1991), he mentions that “perhaps also of nutritional relevance is the Chinese liking for fertilized eggs in which the embryo is well-devel- oped, a preference they share with certain peoples in Southeast Asia and the Pacific region. Embryonated duck eggs … are substantially higher in calcium than ordinary ones.” According to other food scholars, this possibly explains why balut is traditionally eaten by pregnant women and sick people.
But balut in early Asian food history was not just a story of common tales. These fertilized duck eggs were actually made for people with high position in society. In an 1830 report on Siam and Cochin, China by a scholar named Crawfurd, similar “hatched eggs were being eaten during great parties.” He even said that, “the eggs formed a delicacy beyond the reach of the poor, and only adapted for persons of distinction.”
Tagal and Igorot indigenous groups in the Philippines learned to eat this kind of dish from the Chinese. In Friedrich Ratzel’s The History of Mankind, it was concluded that “the Tagals are said to have learnt from the Chinese to eat eggs that have been sat upon, with the chick in them, as tit-bits.” More so, in 1905, Jenks “took note of the Igorots’ liking for developing eggs and how they preferred to wait until there is something in the egg to eat.”
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The royal food history of balut was affirmed when Pigafetta set foot in the Philippine Islands. In 1521, he wrote that he met a certain chief who “was eating turtle eggs which were in two porcelain dishes, and he had four jars full of palm wine in front of him covered with sweet-smelling herbs and arranged with four small reeds in each jar by means of which he drank… then the king had us eat some of those eggs and drink through those slender reeds.”
The history of balut tells us of a fascinating aspect of our social history on food. Long before Spanish colonizers changed and deleted big portions of our history, we have already developed linkages with other nations.
While there is no actual written food history before 1521, historical records from other Asian countries would confirm that indeed, the fertilized duck eggs or balut, was an influence of the Chinese to the Filipinos.
Sadly, the royal history of balut was one of the historical facts that the Spanish omitted. One concept the Spanish brought with them in the native islands was machismo, to which they associated balut with.
Instead of the highlighting the food because of its traditional significance, as well as nutritional value, the colonizers inculcated to the natives that the food is an aphrodisiac, which may be true, anyway, but not the essential core of meaning the food has in our native society and culture.
The aphrodisiac label of the Spanish could possibly explain today’s practice of selling balut in the evening, as it was believed that men were the main patronizers of the food to further their sexual prowess.
Nonetheless, no matter how history is altered, balut is already embedded in the Philippine cultural landscape. It is now a challenge to the present generation how to remind the new generations of Filipinos about the worth of balut in our history. It is not difficult, after all, since it also a flourishing industry in the country.
Perhaps, if this be known, foreigners would eat it with respect as how it was first respected by our pre-colonial leaders.
Magat, M. (2002). Balut: Fertilized Duck Eggs and their Role in Filipino Culture. Western Folkore, Vol. 61, No. 1 (Spring, 2002), pp. 63-96.