House Specialty: Chicken Ovary Adobo

Thursday, April 26, 2012 17 comments

Adobong Bahay Itlog ng Manok

Cow's tongue and beef tripe? Yes and yes.
Pig's face, intestines and blood? Mm-hmm, uh-huh and yup.
Chicken feet, gizzards and ovaries? Check, check and triple che-- say what?

I am not put off by offal. In fact, some of my favorite meals are made of 'nasty bits': I love lengua (tongue) in tacos and estofado (Sp. 'stew'), while tripe is tops in callos a la Madrileña and Mexican menudo¹. Mr. Noodle and I enjoy dinuguan (pork blood stew) and papaitan (goat bile soup) in all their gamey, slightly spicy, chock-full-of-intestines-and-who-knows-what-else glory. Even the Pupster gets his fair share - whenever there's lechon at a family gathering, my relatives know to set aside the ears and tail just for him.

Poultrywise, Mr. Noodle is particularly fond of chicken gizzards, especially the sweetish, smoky inasal (barbecue) skewers from Salcedo Saturday Market that have supplanted my stir-fried recipe as his current favorite. As for me, I've been known to inhale braised chicken feet doused in tausi (fermented black beans) sauce, heartily feast on grilled hearts and nibble unflinchingly on stewed cockscomb. There's not much from a chicken that I haven't tried... or so I thought.

During a recent Salcedo market run, I spotted several bags of what appeared to be separated egg yolks displayed alongside freshly butchered chickens. When I wondered aloud why anyone would sell sacks of already cracked eggs, my mother's amused look was tinged with dismay at having produced such an ignorant child. "Those are bahay itlog," she clarified. "They're chicken ovaries."

A Sack of Egg Sacs

Literally translated as 'egg house', bahay itlog is the part of a hen's reproductive organs from which a chicken egg starts its development. The orangeish balls in those bags were indeed yolks but at the pre-insemination stage, before the albumen (egg white) and shell form around them just prior to laying. Seeing the visceral strands of pearl-like spheres varying in size from peas to ping pong balls brought to mind fluffy, chirpy chicks that would never be. I recoiled in universal female empathy; sure, I've eaten balut, but this was... different. For the first time, I understood why some guys wince at the thought of eating Rocky Mountain oysters.

However, my curiosity proved stronger than my sense of interspecies sisterhood and repulsion quickly turned into fascination. I had never seen or heard of chicken ovary dishes before, much less tasted them. According to my mother, bahay itlog is considered quite the delicacy. She recalled how they were prepared only on those occasions when the family cook purchased a laying hen² by chance and discovered the egg sac as the old bird was being readied for the pot. As it turns out, what's good for the chicken is good for its ovaries, too - the unlaid eggs were (and still are) commonly added to simmering chicken adobo.

The Multicultural Ovum

Of course, Filipinos are not the only ones who appreciate the tasty qualities of immature ova. A 2007 New York Times article, "What the Egg Was First", described how Dan Barber, executive chef and co-owner of Blue Hill Farm and restaurants in New York and Connecticut, began experimenting with innovative ways to incorporate unlaid eggs into the menu. His recipes were new but their main ingredient was long familiar to staff and colleagues from such varied cultural backgrounds as Dominican, Goan and Alsatian. In the latter two, the not-quite-eggs were simmered (in curry and soup, respectively), a favored way of cooking them in other cuisines as well.

Never been laid...
In Jewish cookery, bahay itlog are known as eyerlekh (or ayelach, 'little eggs' in Yiddish) and are added to classic chicken soup; they are similarly found in traditional recipes for Portuguese canja de galinha (chicken broth) and Vietnamese pho ga (chicken and rice noodle soup). Proving to be culinary contrarians, the Japanese prefer their ovaries served as a type of yakitori (grilled skewered chicken) called kinkan, which is also the word for the kumquat fruit they so closely resemble. Here in the Philippines, adding them to chicken adobo is the most popular preparation - keeping it in the family, as it were.

Not one to pass up an opportunity to try something new, I bought a bag of bahay itlog, muttered an apology to all reproductive females in the universe, and headed home to expand my culinary horizon another nasty bit more.

1. As opposed to Filipino menudo, which uses primarily pork meat.
2. It's very unlikely that you'll find butchered hens with ovaries intact at the supermarket. Instead, talk to your local butcher or poultry farmer about procuring them fresh.

Adobong Bahay Itlog ng Manok 
(Chicken Ovary Adobo)

My mother cautioned against refrigerating bahay itlog and insisted they be cooked immediately. I couldn't find any information online to support or disprove her advice about storing them, but it was just as well to take full advantage of absolutely fresh ingredients. Besides, family members (*ahem* Mr. Noodle) may not appreciate opening the fridge to find a bag of reproductive organs just sitting there beside the Greek yogurt.

Most of what I've read about the texture of cooked unlaid eggs describe them as either creamy and velvety, or chewier than a rubber ball. With a recipe like adobo for which a long, slow simmer is ideal, achieving the former is a matter of timing that may be difficult to hit, while risking the latter by overcooking the eggs is a definite possibility. My compromise was to add the yolks toward the end of cooking and watch them diligently, rather than leave the pot to simmer at leisure as I would normally do for adobo. Thankfully, I managed to produce balls of mildly yolk-y flavor, a consistency closer to that of hard-boiled egg white and the appearance of plump kumquats, as Japanese yakitori-lovers had astutely observed.

I'm happy to say that the dish was quite satisfactory over all and even earned my mother's proud approval. Not an ignorant child after all...


2 cups of bahay itlog, yolks separated from membranes and gently rinsed (I'm not sure how many separate ovaries were in the bag I purchased, but this was my yield.)

2 Tbsps canola oil, divided
1 lb (500g) boneless chicken thighs
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 small red onion, sliced thinly
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1 Tbsp brown sugar
1/4 cup cane or apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 bay leaf

1. In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat 1 Tbsp of oil over medium-high heat and brown chicken pieces, then remove and set aside;
2. Add another 1 Tbsp of oil and sauté garlic and onion until soft and fragrant. Return chicken pieces to pot and toss to mix;
3. Add all of the remaining ingredients and bring to a slow boil, then reduce heat to low. Cover and let simmer for 20-30 minutes or until chicken is cooked;
4. While still simmering, gently add the bahay itlog to the pot, but do not stir immediately to prevent them from breaking. Cover and continue simmering for another 7-10 minutes, until the yolks start to cook;
5. Uncover and very, very gently, start tossing the mixture so that the yolks are in the sauce. You can also ladle the cooking liquid over the eggs to help them along. As the yolks cook, they will turn a lighter, more opaque yellow and will feel more firm.
6. Test one egg to make sure it's done, then remove from heat and let sit for a few minutes before serving. Served with steamed rice.

As with all adobos, this recipe benefits from being served a day or two after cooking. Just be sure to allow it to cool completely before storing in the refrigerator, then heating it back up slowly to avoid drying out or overcooking the meat and eggs.

Do you know of other recipes for chicken ovaries? If so, please share!


  • lisaiscooking said...

    I've heard of chicken ovaries being eaten, but I've never tried it. I have to say, offal is not my favorite stuff in general, but I could handle trying this! Love that their Japanese name is the same as kumquat.

  • Jenni said...

    I always, Always learn something here. For folks completely disturbed by this dish, it really is a way of letting nothing--Nothing--go to waste. We all need to know where our food comes from, and we shouldn't shrink away from that knowledge.

    I had no idea, although it shouldn't surprise me, that these unlaid eggs--chicken roe--have such a storied culinary history. Thanks, Tracey!

  • JenBongar said...

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on "bahay itlog." Very enlightening. Made me think that if salmon and crab roe are served raw in Japanese restaurants, why not chicken roe adobo?

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Thank you to all who've suggested the more palatable word 'roe' for this particular dish. 8-D

    Lisa - At least you've heard of it before; I was in total shock! As the NYT article pointed out, with factory farming (the most prevalent source for chicken meat nowadays) this part of the fowl never really makes it to most consumers. If you know a farmer who can save it for you, I hope you'll give it a try! It really is just the egg yolk... 8-) (And they really do look like kumquats, although the hubs thought they looked more like small apricots.)

    Jenni - Thank you, friend! That's exactly the mindset for many here in the Philippines, especially in the provinces where huge supermarkets are very scarce. The wet markets are full of live-and-ready-to-be-slaughtered or just-butchered animals. It's a little disconcerting at first, but when you realize how fresh your meat really is... For those who are skeeved by the word 'ovary', I thank you for suggesting 'roe'! 8-D

    Jen - Hi and thank you! It's interesting what people consider palatable or not, based on name or perception. These are essentially egg yolks, just like what you'd find when you crack an egg! So happy you enjoyed the post. 8-)

  • The Beancounter said...

    My mother in law is very fond of this... in Nagcarlan, Laguna, where she's originally from, you buy this together with the chicken...I just can't recall what sort of dish she prepares...i've never tried it myself...maybe on my next trip home. Good one Tracey!

  • Forager said...

    We sometimes see these in Vietnamese chicken pho soups. I first thought it was actually a chicken testicle to be honest! And sometimes they appear in Chinese pigs trotter, ginger and egg vinegared stews.

  • Caroline said...

    Ame Besa posted a picture of a prepared dish of chicken and its unlaid eggs a few weeks ago on Facebook and now I read them here. I definitely would like to try and prepare these myself, I've never had and of course would cook them like you did here. I'm off to find a source.

  • Noodle's Ate said...

    Oh the Freudian humor laced in your article that is yet again another delightful read. Wish I was able to taste your recipe. I will have to add this to my growing list of
    "must-do" at my next visit.

  • Midge said...

    My maternal grandmother (who's from Leyte) used to make this dish when she was still alive and we'd all eat heartily. Considering these were ovaries, no one in the family was ever squeamish about eating them; then again, who doesn't love egg yolks?

    I'll try to hunt up another of her bahay-itlg recipes for you; it's a pasta dish that looks like a bird's nest. :D

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Thank you for the new comments! 8-)

    Franchise - LOL! Happy you found what you were looking for. ;-)

    Beancounter - Thank you! The bags of ovaries can be purchased separately now and I'm pretty sure they contain 'stuff' from more than one hen. If you should recall what dish your MIL prepares, I'd love to hear about it! 8-)

    Forager - Yes, I saw a lot of Flickr photos of these in pho but never encountered it myself. I'd love to find a recipe of the Chinese dish you've mentioned - it sounds like something I would definitely want to taste. Nothing like mixing up the offal in one dish! 8-)

    Caroline - I'm going to check it out! Was it the same thing, an adobo? Please do let me know if you find a source in SoCal! 8-)

    Ate - Thank you!! Yes, you'll definitely have to try it. The mothership enjoyed it, although she was slightly disapproving when I told her I used onions in my adobo recipe. Haha! 8-)

    Midge - After I cooked them, I was quite taken by the texture and flavor, although the husband was not. Heh! I would LOVE to learn more about your grandmother's recipe - a pasta dish that looks like a bird's nest with these golden yolks? It sounds so intriguing and fantastic! 8-)

  • kaoko said...

    I've never eaten this but the thought fascinates me. Still, not enough to actually brave purchasing and trying to cook some. Maybe I should take inspiration from your post? :)

  • Anonymous said...

    Definitely a very unique dish. I would certainly love to try if I ever could find chicken ovaries!

  • BettyAnn @Mango_Queen said...

    How did I miss this delish post? I love these "eggs"! I used to love finding these eggs in Chicken Nilaga back in the day, growing up in the province. We had free range chickens then. I love your recipe. Can you make this for me next time I'm home to visit? Thanks for sharing, Tracey!

  • Jeremy said...

    Wow, I've had so many other kinds of odd animal bits, so I don't know why this one has given me pause. It's like chicken caviar..

    Nice post and love the new look!

  • notskairt2sayit said...

    Somebody starts a misnomer: "ovaries", and a bunch of people follow as if it is correct. The proper word is "ova", not "ovaries". Ova means eggs. These are "eggs". The ovaries are organs that make eggs, like testicles make sperm. If you were eating sperm, would you think you were eating testicles? Ovaries are found in the abdomen of the hen and are not unlike other internal organs, such as liver etc. The ovary is not an egg, of course, it is a gland! My gosh...doesn't anybody learn anything in government schools? We need to abandon our stupid education system in the US in favor of simple stuff you can learn on a farm or by using your brain.


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