A good deal of my travel adventures focus around food – specifically, bizarre food … food that most of my friends are repulsed by … food that isn’t even considered to be food here in the good old US of A. But I love it. And many times for me, the opportunity for world class adventure eating is what makes a great vacation even better.
While in Peru I dined on cuy (guinea pig) and snacked on live suri grubs from the Amazon rainforest. In Nicaragua I sampled Viagra soup, which contained the medulla, feet, brain and testicles of a bull. In Brazil I fished for and ate piranha from the Rio Negro, and while in Belize I tantalized my taste buds with live termites straight from the mound. But it wasn’t until I visited Hanoi, Vietnam, that I discovered the true Mecca of bizarre food.
Because there was so much bizarre food to be found in Hanoi, I am breaking this experience up into three parts. Let’s start with a little poultry.
Balut, in short, is a fertilized duck egg. It is considered to be a delicacy in many countries, including Vietnam. The fertilized eggs are removed from the nests and incubated for 14 to 19 days. As the embryo matures inside the egg, its beak hardens and feathers begin to develop. The longer the egg has been incubated, the more feathers it will have and the harder its beak and bones will be. But even at the early end of the scale, you can easily see that it is a bird. Its eyes, beak, wings, body and feet are quite distinguishable.
Even though the egg is boiled prior to eating, I have to admit that it looks pretty daunting. In Vietnam they season the embryo with a little salt, some fresh pungent herbs, finely sliced ginger and a squeeze of lime juice. (I have sampled balut previously in a Filipino restaurant in Manhattan, and they provided salt, vinegar and hot peppers for garnish.)
To eat the balut, you first peel off one end of the shell and then drink the juice. As strange as that sounds, it tastes really good – not surprisingly, just like chicken broth! Then you peel the rest of the shell off and eat the embryo. Because the cooked yolk will still be attached to the embryo, the resulting taste is very similar to a boiled egg. Yes, the beak and bones are a little crunchy and the feathers can be a nuisance, but all in all it’s a very tasty bite.
Generally speaking, balut is not served at restaurants in Hanoi, so you’ll need to keep your eyes peeled for street venders who offer them up from their carts.