Bird’s nest soup is an expensive delicacy in any restaurant, but is more prevalent on the menus in areas of China and Taiwan and in upscale restaurants in the United States. Diners not familiar with this dish may wonder what exactly is in the soup and why it is so expensive.
What is Bird’s Nest Soup
Authentic bird nest soup is actually made from the nest of a bird. The nest, however, is not what one might imagine right away. It is not a nest of leaves and twigs. It is a nest made primarily from the salivCredit: photo by user Kowloonesea of the male swiftlet bird.
The swiftlet is about the size of a sparrow and like the bat uses echolocation to navigate in the dark caves where it builds its nest. The bird has a saliva gland under its tongue and the large gland produces a gooey spit the bird uses for its nest building material. The male swiftlet spits out long strands of the sticky spit and forms a small cup on the side of the cave wall. Some small twigs, feathers and leaves are incorporated into the nest. The tiny hand-sized nest is big enough for one-two eggs.
The nest is first harvested, soaked to loosen the stray twigs, feathers and leaves which are then removed and then dried. Sometimes a red dye is added to the nest. When making the soup, the dried nest is soaked to soften it. The softened nest is placed in a chicken broth and cooked. Cheaper versions of the soup use noodles in place of the actual bird’s nest.
Harvesting the nest of the Swiftlet
Harvesting the nests of the swiftlet is big business in Asia, especially China and Thailand. For hundreds of years, the nest has thought to be an aphrodisiac, help with skin complexion and aging, and prevent lung disease. According to an article in the San Francisco Chroncicle (2000), in the southern islanCredit: photo by Miles Goodhewds of Thailand, the business is coveted and often secretive. The caves where the swiftlet build their nests in that area are protected by the companies given the concession to harvest them and intruders can meet with death if they encroach upon the business, even if it’s by accident.
Collecting the nests from the caves is dangerous for the climbers. The climbers typically tie together bamboo poles and climb them to get to the nests. Falls are not uncommon. When the nest is reached, the climbers scrape it from the wall. Climbers typically take two of the three nests the bird builds, leaving the third for the bird to hatch its eggs. Credit: photo by Alexander S. Heitkamp
In the more recent years, the farmers of the nests have created a solution to the problem of increased demand for the nests. Giant concrete structures were erected throughout Asia to mimic the swiftlet’s natural cave habitats. Attention to detail inside the structure ensures the building of nests by the little birds and makes harvesting them less dangerous.
The Cost of Bird’s Nest Soup
In terms of money, a bowl of authentic bird nest soup can cost from $60 USD to over $100 USD. According to a report by Jordan Research out of the UK, a kilo (2.2 pounds or about 120 nests) of bird nest cost $2,000 USD or more in 2002. Depending upon which type of nest is purchased, a high grade, rare red nest can cost up to $10,000 per kilo. White nests are sometimes dyed, but the authentic, natural red nest is most often only found in the limestone caves on an island off Thailand.
In terms of conservation, the harvesting of bird nests from their natural habitat is under debate as to how much it effects the population of the swiftlet. Advocates for the swiftlet argue greed has taken over and sometimes all of the third nests are taken and the baby birds discarded. The building of the concrete “hotels” for the swiftlet contributes to the deforestation in Indonesia. According to Wikipedia, in the Gunung Palung National Park, West Kalimantan, the construction of the swiftlet hotels has increased the levels of illegal logging in order to meet the demands for timber.
While many love this soup, others find it bland and rubbery. For anyone wanting to try this delicacy, high-end restaurants throughout the world offer it on their menu; just expect to pay a high price. Even if made at home, bird’s nest soup will cost plenty.
Jordan Research. Globalisation and Bird’s Nest Soup. Accessed March 15, 2012. http://www.jordanresearch.co.uk/pubs.html
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