The first time I tasted an egg from a bird other than a chicken, I had just moved out of my parents’ home into my first apartment. While buying groceries to stock up my new kitchen, I spotted a display of extra-large duck eggs and purchased a carton. They were perfect for a simple dinner while unpacking boxes, but I was surprised that they tasted quite similar to chicken eggs.
Although duck, goose and quail eggs are available in Canada, most major grocery stores only sell chicken eggs. Fortunately, farmer’s markets and ethnic grocery stores offer other choices. These include the delicate quail eggs I eat so often when I’m in Việt Nam, and the partially incubated duck eggs my husband and I like to purchase late at night from the women who set up a few miniature tables and stools on street corners and operate their businesses by the flickering light of tiny oil lamps.
In Huế, whenever we eat bánh canh, the seller puts a bowl of quail eggs (trứng chim cút), on the table, along with a dish of blended salt and pepper on the side, and charges us according to how many we eat. Some of them we peel and dip in the pepper-salt and some we drop into our soup. I remember how the lovely pale blue, the same as a robin’s egg, on the inside of the shell surprised me the first time I had these.
While the very thin shells probably make it easier for the tiny quails to break out at hatching time, it also means they’re tricky to peel. I learned not to do it the way my husband taught me. He likes to roll them in his fingers as he taps them on the table until the shells break up in a network of fracture lines. The shells come off in a zillion pieces and tiny bits stay stuck to the egg. I discovered that if I press on the center with a thumbnail until it cracks, I can pull back the shell in one piece all held together by the membrane, leaving no shell fragments behind on the egg. Quail eggs also make tiny cute sunny-side-up eggs, but cracking raw ones open without breaking the yolks is a fussy business.
I like to use them for filling bánh bao. Instead of using regular eggs, which have to be cut into quarters or eighths, I just tuck a whole quail egg in before closing up the dough. (You can read more about bánh bao in my post B is for Buns)
Bánh bao make a great breakfast, but one of my favourite morning dishes in Huế is mì ốp la (eggs sunny side up with baguette). There’s often a choice of thinly sliced beef or xíu mai meatballs with tomato sauce to go with it. Some places serve it on a cow-shaped cast iron pan, still hot from the fire and nestled in a wooden holder. It arrives at the table spitting and sizzling, the eggs surrounded with the broth from the sautéed beef. In his blog post Hue Egg Breakfast, Mark Lowerson has posted some appetizing photos from his breakfast on Trương Dịnh Street, where a little cluster of stalls all offer their versions of mì ốp la each morning. He also seems to have the same affinity as I do for the bright flavours of Vietnamese-style breakfasts.
Not long after I first met the man who would eventually become my husband, he introduced me to half-hatched duck eggs, hột vịt lộn. Hột rhymes with coat and means egg, vịt sounds like it looks and means duck, and lộn sounds like lone and in this context means half-hatched.
I’d been in Việt Nam for a little over two months and though I knew about half-hatched eggs, I’d never tried them. When I asked him if he liked them, his eyes lit up and he said: “Would you like to go try one now?” We were already on his motorbike—he was driving me back to my hotel after an evening at a café with friends—so when I said yes, he turned the bike, crossed the bridge over the Perfume River and stopped beside the citadel wall. Just ahead, a woman sat on the curb under a pool of streetlamp light. Behind her, the moat encircling the citadel reflected a waxing moon.
My husband (well, not yet even fiancé at the time, but to keep this story simple, I’ll call him husband) ordered two eggs, specifying that he wanted them non (young), with the duck inside not too developed. She opened her insulated woven basket and took out an egg.
“How can you tell?” I asked her. She smiled and held it up to the light, examining the size of the dark shadow that indicated the age of the egg and the future duck inside. She put it back and held up another one. More light shone through the shell this time, so she placed it on a plate, and checked another one. She put some salt and pepper in a green plastic saucer and placed a pile of rau răm leaves (Persicaria or Vietnamese coriander) on another one. She set these out on a battered tin tray balanced on top of her egg basket.
My husband tapped the bottom of his egg with a spoon to make a hole, then sipped from it as if from a glass. Copying him, I made a hole in my own egg, almost starting at the wrong end. “Start at the bottom,” he said. “That’s where the air space is, so it’s easier to sip the juice.” He flipped my egg over, and I continued. The warm liquid inside tasted like a delicate broth. Watching him to learn the next step, I peeled away a little more of the shell, sprinkled the interior with a pinch of the pepper-salt, stuffed a spicy rau răm leaf in on top, and scooped out a bite with my spoon.
The streetlamp light was too dim for me to see what I was eating, which allowed me to concentrate fully on the flavour. Tastes like a bit of duck meat with an egg, I thought. Not bad at all. My husband ordered two more, but these ones were a day or two older, and the delicate bones offered a faint crunch with each bite. The egg white was a hard, rubbery lump, which my husband cautioned me not to eat. Of course, I nibbled at it anyway, and determined that it was indeed tough.
Duck eggs usually hatch at around 28 days, and the hột vịt lộn sold in Việt Nam are between 16 and 20 days old. According to Ngô Minh, in his book Ăn Chơi Xứ Huế (NXB Thuận Hoá, 2002), eggs older than 20 days have very little liquid left and tend to be bitter, and the duck, close to hatching, is too developed, while those less than 18 days old are not ready yet, with the duck too small to appreciate.
My husband and I prefer them at around 15 or 16 days, when the duck is already recognizable but quite soft. As they age, the tiny feathers become distinct and the beaks and bones develop. Eating a 20-day-old one really is like eating a slice of duck meat with fine, crunchy bones. We’ve bought them from our local Asian markets a couple of times in Canada, but they tend to be more mature, and some stores will only sell them by the dozen, too many for just two people.
Half-hatched eggs are eaten in several Asian countries, for example in the Philippines, where they’re called balut; in Laos, where they are khai louk ped; in Cambodia, pong tea khon; and in Thailand, khai khao. Even in these places though, not everyone finds them appetizing.
Westerners tend to view these eggs with disgust. I wonder if this is because we haven’t grown up with them in our diets or the diets of those around us. The half-hatched egg is simply a two-in-one, the meat and the egg all in one place. We eat duck (or chicken or quail) meat and we eat eggs . . . so what is it about these eggs then that turns so many travellers off? Is it the nascent feathers, the idea of eating the whole bird, bones, beak and all, or the fact that it is not yet born?
When eating duck, Westerners discard the bones and most other bits that are not muscle tissue, but the bird inside an 18-day-old egg is barely one bite in size, making it impossible to separate the meat from the bones.
I tend to feel sorry for the tiny duckling in my egg, and I do find it harder to eat the more developed ones, even though they taste delicious. My husband, on the other hand, thinks there is no better midnight snack, and since they’re harder to come by in Canada, he’s come to see them as a real treat.
When in Huế, we’re lucky to have a hột vịt lộn seller who includes our neighborhood in her late-night rounds. She cycles up our lane with a padded wicker basket hanging from her bike. Her call is unmistakable: “ Ai lộộộộộn . . . ”—Who (wants) half-hatched eggs—sounding almost like someone calling out hello: “h’lloooooo”, the tail end of the word fading away in the darkness.
We call out to her and she stops her bike to prepare our order, measuring pepper-salt into a square of newspaper and stuffing rau răm into a bag with the eggs. We carry it all into the house to share with the family. Once, during a visit to Huế after a long stay in Canada, my husband was thrilled to hear her calling her wares; in a happy and generous mood, he bought all the woman’s remaining eggs—almost thirty, or three each for all the brothers, sisters, aunts, parents, and cousins in our family present that evening. We couldn’t eat them all and had to put some in the fridge, but they’re best when they’re fresh and hot.
Some sellers offer shredded carrot and daikon pickles, or shredded ginger and chilies to accompany the eggs. In Saigon, I’ve eaten hột vịt lộn sautéed with tamarind. I’ve eaten them deep fried, and once in Huế, I had a soup of half-hatched eggs with opo squash served in a fancy Imperial-style china vessel. Strangely, while Hanoians eat them for breakfast, Huế people only eat them in the evening. When I asked my husband if he ever had them for breakfast, he lifted one eyebrow, squinched the other eye shut and pursed his lips. Guess not.
We are sometimes awakened by the cries of the egg seller in our lane, and sometimes we return home late after a stop at one of the street corner sellers. To me, this is the best way to eat hột vịt lộn; there’s something magic about going out for a midnight snack and watching the egg seller, her face lit from below by the flickering light of her oil lamp as she opens her hamper to choose our hot eggs. Sometimes there are no tables, just a cluster of stools, and though we may sit with a group of strangers, we all talk together, barriers broken by our proximity. Knees practically touching, we all use the seller’s tray as our communal table.
You can get an idea of the development of a duck from embryo to foetus to hatch-ready with this egg-candling chart, which shows what you see when you hold the egg up to a light. To get a more in-depth view of what’s happening inside a developing egg, you can take a look at this set of photos of chick embryo development.
Just be careful if you try to order these eggs in Vietnamese. A slight mispronunciation of the tones will produce a rude word that refers to a particular part of the anatomy that men do not have, much to the delight (or horror) of your egg seller and her customers, who will surely joke that you’re trying to buy something a lot more risqué than an egg.
Because of regional variations in the way the tones are spoken, this can happen not only to travellers from other lands but to Vietnamese too. I’ve heard many variations of the story, often told by men during drinking sessions. One version, related by Ngô Minh in his essay Đêm “Hôvilô” (Hột Vịt Lộn Nights), is that an official from the northern countryside is sent to Huế on business and (I’ll try to translate this as close to what he writes as possible) his wife arrives to visit him there. In the evening, as they prepare for bed, suddenly from outside comes a voice—a woman calling out her wares: “lôộn…” in her Huế accent with its nặng or heavy tone that sounds a lot like a huyền or falling tone.
“Oh! What is she saying—how strange!” says the wife, her face turning red. Her husband, half truthful and half joking, replies: “Oh, what she’s selling is very precious. If I don’t have it, I can’t bear it. Every night, I do one before I sleep; only then can I sleep well. Do you want to try it?”
The wife misunderstands (of course), grabs her suitcase and rushes, sobbing, to the train station. Her husband runs after her, trying to explain, but she doesn’t believe him until finally, a hột vịt lộn seller appears with her egg basket, calling her wares.
Please check out the other A to Z blog tour participants’ posts too:
Dorothee Lang – Playing with language
Rose Hunter – Place/Memory
Jane Hammons – Random topics
Fred Osuna – “My South.”
Jo Thomas – Mousie the stuffed mouse tours Thurnscoe, South Yorkshire
Margrét Helgadottir – Growing up as a cross-cultural kid