The first time I laid eyes on this dish it was on the streets of Ha Noi. It did then and always will look like it belongs on a shelf in a biology lab. At first I thought they were just your regular boiled eggs being served. “That’s a good, normal breakfast!” I thought, and then I saw one being cracked open. It was a sight for sore eyes. It looked like an abortion, but I vaguely remembered seeing it on TV and I immediately knew what this ugly thing was. It’s basically a duck embryo, boiled in the eggshell and then the eggshell gets cracked open and the monstrosity falls out into your bowl. The most common name used for it in English is ‘balut’ and it comes from the version they eat in the Philippines, but in Vietnam it’s called ‘trung vit lon’.
It was so strange looking and creepy that I had to try it, only after my best friend who was equally nervous about trying it, had the first taste of course. She is the champion of adventure. To my amazement, the thing actually tasted really good, like a combination of duck meat and duck egg. The worst part about eating it was the fact that I knew exactly what it was that I was eating and for some stupid reason the taste of it got overwhelmed by the mind bending tricks the tiny duck abortion was playing on me. The graphic images couldn’t be avoided when I was busy chewing it.
It was quite an experience and if it wasn’t so graphically intense to consume I would eat it more often. I found out that this dish originates in China and over there they traditionally consider all food to possess certain properties which makes them either a ‘yin’ or ‘yang’ food. ‘Yin’ foods are considered “cold foods” and ‘yang’ foods are “hot foods”. This has nothing to do with the actual temperature or spiciness of the food, but it’s about the affect it has on our bodies. Now, the duck embryo is a “cold food” and that is why it gets eaten with fresh ginger, pepper and herbs, to balance out the ‘yin’ and ‘yang’. Apparently, it’s so “cold” it needs those accompaniments to be safe enough to be consumed.
It all sounds very philosophical and ancient, but I think it makes sense that the duck embryo is a “cold food”, I felt quite cold inside for eating it. But I find it an interesting and practical way of looking at food and nutrition. I also tried the smaller quail embryo called trung cut lon and it was just as tasty, but equally traumatic to ingest. This mini version is often consumed as a beer snack at bia hoi’s and I managed eat five of them once when I was quite leathered. The duck embryo or trung vit lon is traditionally eaten by woman in Vietnam during or before child birth to make the whole birth smoother. I don’t know much about nutritional chemistry, but I don’t think I even need to point out the irony there. It makes complete sense to me too.