Hot Vit Lon, the Balut
Vietnamese Hot Vit Lon, the Philippine Balut
No matter what part of the world you come from, if you travel much in Vietnam, you are going to encounter food that is unusual, strange, maybe even immoral, or just plain weird. Of course “strange” depends upon your point of view. The fiercely omnivorous Vietnamese find nothing strange in eating insects, algea, offal or fish bladders. They’ll feast on the flesh of dogs, they’ll eat a crocodile, or a dish of cock’s testicles. They’ll kill a venomous snake before your eyes, cut out his still beating heart and feed it to you with a cup of the serpent’s blood to wash it down, and say it increases your potency. They’ll sell you Python flesh at $12 per pound. They’ll slay a monkey and then barbeque your late cousin at your tableside. In Saigon the menu at the Hương Rừng restaurant reads in part:
Barbequed turtle dove $1.50
Grilled field mouse $0.80
Roasted toad $2.50
King Cobra done eight ways $26.00/Kg
Three flavored bat $5.00
Five flavored lizard $2.50
Johnie (sic) Walker Red Label $14.00/Bottle
To the Vietnamese there is nothing “strange” about anything that will sustain the body. To them a food is either wholsome or it isn’t; it’s nutritious or it isn’t; it tastes good or it doesn’t. And that’s all they worry about. They’ll try anything once. Even Kentucky Fried Chicken. But they might find you strange, Stranger.
As for myself, I’ll try anything once. And I’ll tell you my favorite. I was sitting at the bar in Hien and Bob’s pub on Hai Ba Trung Blvd one fine Saigon afternoon. Luckily Hien’s beer is the coldest in town, because the temp outside hovered at around 90 degrees F with humidity to match. It’s air conditioned and dimly lit here, a respite from the heat and glaring light outdoors. The lovely Miss Yu, dressed in Ao Dai, sat primly behind the bar, about to have a snack.
I look in curiosity at what she holds in her hand. She places it in mine. It’s an egg. Still warm from cooking. By the size, shape and color I guess, “This is duck?”
“Oh, so you know about Hot Vit Lon,” Miss Yu says.
Lifting a spoon she cracked the egg around the narrow end. She lifted off the top. Some of the contents ran down the side of the shell. She held forth spoon and egg, and invited me to partake. Inside the shell is what one could accurately describe as a duck abortion: a fertilized egg allowed to incubate till some days before maturity. It is dropped into hot water when it is no longer an embryo, but not yet a fetus.
Miss Yu’s kind offering, called “hot vit lon” in Vietnam and “balut” in the Philippines, is a mass of blood vessels, suggestions of feathers, bones so nascent that they disintegrate at a touch, and a pudding like substance, neither egg nor meat, that, left alone, would have congealed into the bird’s musculature, brain, and organs. And it smells rather …. tempting. Like a duck confit, or ragout.
I declined the offer, knowing that she was simply being polite. She was hungry. I chose not to interfere. She thrust her spoon into the cavity, swirled it slightly to mix up the good bits. She drew it out full of tasty nourishment and brought it sensuously into her mouth. I was reminded of Brillat-Savarin’s assertion that “a pretty gastronome” prepared to feed is one of the most charming sights in the world. She ate it like peanut butter, or vegemite, or caviar. Smiling with delight. A small gob of little blood vessels clung to her lower lip. She licked it off, and smiled coyly. I agree with Brillat-Savarin.
I have had this dish before, in the Philippines where it is called bulut, and esteem it a tasty treat. It has almost all the vitamins and nutrients a human needs. It’s soft enough for a toothless babe. And is so digestable that if you have ulcers or other stomach complaints, this might be your perfect food. Try it. But take this advice, at least for the first time: close your eyes.