Yes it is true. The headline is not just a hoax to lure you into reading the article. This traditional Chinese soup is actually made of birds’ nests, those of the swiflet to be precise. If you are thinking now that people just throw a jumble of twigs and moss into boiling vegetable stock, your imagination is going a bit wild. However, the real composition will hardly be less weird for most you. In fact, the edible nests are made from the birds’ hardened saliva. For the soup, they get dissolved in a broth in order for them to become soft again.

Edible bird’s nests are one of the most luxurious and expensive delicacies in Chinese cuisine. For that reason, they have also gained the nickname “Caviar of the East”. Apart form their primary use in sweet or savory soup, edible bird’s nests can serve as an ingredient in other dishes as well. Cooked together with rice, they make a unique bird’s nest congee or add a special touch to egg tarts and other Chinese desserts. As a ready-made sweet, the swiflet nests are available in the form of a jelly that comes in jars and can be bought in supermarkets.

If you enjoy discovering oddities like this one, also check out our collection of Curious Delicacies From Around The World afterwards.

What Is The Big Deal?

You are wondering why people go crazy for such an admittedly strange dish? Well, the taste is not necessarily out of this world. Bird’s Nest Soup is almost a bit like jelly. The high content of protein in the swallows’ saliva creates a gelatinous texture with a slight sweetness. While the consistency may be extraordinary, it actually has very little flavor on it’s own. This is also the reason why compositions are usually very simple in order not to overpower the delicate flavor of the expensive bird’s nests.

Oftentimes, the base for the soup only contains some kind of stock or even just water with rock sugar. Though, some recipes call for additional aromas from ingredients such as dried jujube dates or ginger. Either way, in order to experience the bird’s nests in the proper way, rather large amounts need to be used for them to take the centerstage in the dish.

But what is it if the taste itself can’t really justify the soaring prices? In China and other Asian countries, many people believe that the swiflets’ saliva provides several health benefits. Supposedly rich in nutrients like calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium, the nests are believed to have special impact on increasing the libido, boosting the immune system or rejuvenating the skin. Even some celebrities swear by its positive effects and supposedly eat a portion almost every day. And it is not a new phenomenon within the craze of ever more extraordinary super foods. The nests have been used in Chinese cooking for over 400 years.

However, science has not confirmed their role as a fountain of youth or universal remedy, yet. In the end, what you pay for is mainly its scarcity, century-old tradition and uniqueness. And if it works for certain people like some kind of placebo, it might well be worth it, right?

A Truely Exclusive Delicacy – With An According Price Tag

Probably to the surprise of many of you guys, edible bird’s nests are among the most expensive animal products consumed by humans. While prices vary hugely depending on the nests’ grading, the cost level is generally extremely high.

The grading of a bird’s nest depends on the type of bird, its shape as well as the color. Most common, and thus relatively lower in price, are nests from the white and black-nest swiftlet which run between 2,000 and 6,000 USD per kilogram. Although this is already very steep compared to most other foods, a distinct type carries the whole thing to extremes. The housing of the red-nest swiftlet – also sometimes known as “blood” nests – reach prices of up to 10,000 USD per kilogram! Thus, a bowl of real Bird’s Nest Soup can easily cost 30-100 USD – or more! Not really your everyday snack.

 

 

Harvesting Bird’s Nests

The exceptionally high price for the bird’s nests, and consequently for the soup, is a result of the dangerous retrieval and laborious cleaning of the nests. The whole process starts during breeding season, when male birds take as many as 35 days to construct their housing. Much to the harvesters’ chagrin, this happens in the wild in mountain caves at dizzying heights.

Nest of a swiflet bird made from saliva. The nest is used to make traditional CHinese Bird's Nest Soup, an exclusive delicacy

Thus, in the traditional way, the nests are mainly harvested from such places like the enormous limestone caves in Borneo. Three times per year, harvesters take a helmet, rope and a huge portion of courage to climb up high into the mountains where they hope to find the shallow cups of bird saliva sticking to the cave walls. Quite frankly, the scouts are risking their lives in order to retrieve the traditonal Chinese delicacy.

Since natural production can’t satisfy the ever increasing demand due to pollution as well as protective restrictions anymore, nesting houses have been in use since the 1990s to boost the volumes.

Whether in the wild or in special facilities, the job isn’t complete after the harvest. Since the swiflets build their nests from a mix of feathers and saliva, they need thorough cleaning before being used in any kind of dish. With tiny tools, cleaners pull out feather by feather and remove impurities. A manual and timely process that further adds to the high price.

The overall industry has expanded enormously over the last decades. Today, Indonesia is the largest producer of bird’s nests – 2,000 tonnes per year! – followed by Malaysia and Thailand. From those places the nests are mostly exported to Hong Kong, the centre of their global trade. Finally, most of the delicacies end up in mainland China, the world’s largest consumer of birds’ nests with a share of more than 90 percent of consumption. Adding the remaining 10% of the cake results in a total worldwide trade volume of around 5 billion USD.

An Important Note On Animal Protection

Yes, we do understand that Bird’s Nest Soup has a long tradition in Chinese cuisine. Yet, protecting the swiflets is extremely important. Although the swallows themselves are not caught, interfering with their housing especially during the breeding period can seriously harm reproduction. An animal product like this which can bring harvesters huge profits needs to be well regulated. Although strict laws are in place to prevent overexploitation, poachers still harvest and export nests illegally in their greed for money.

Of course, the best way would be to refrain from trying the curious dish completely. Though, if you do want to try this extraordinary specialty, make sure to buy the product only from reputable companies. These will make sure that the breeding process is over and the fledglings have hatched before harvest starts.

Can You Make Bird’s Nest Soup At Home?

Let’s be fair, it is highly unlikely that you will ever get yourself some raw swallow nests to prepare this traditional Chinese soup in your own kitchen at home. If you actually ever get to try it, it will probably be at a Southern Chinese restaurant for a horrendous amount of money. But well, never say never. And in case you do get your hands onto this rare curiosity, at least we want you to know how to prepare it. After all, it is extremely simple and requires very few additional ingredients. Check out our recipe below:

 

Bird’s Nest Soup

Servings: 2 servings

Birds Nest Soup Recipe with Jujube dates and rock sugar, traditional CHinese recipe for sweet soup

Ingredients

  • 60 g bird's nests
  • 950 ml water
  • 7 tbsp crushed rock sugar
  • 10-15 dried Jujube dates

Instructions

  1. The night before, soak the bird's nests in cold water and leave overnight. Then, rinse them well and remove any remaining feathers or other impurities
  2. Boil a pot of water a let the nests simmer for about 5 minutes. Drain and do the same over again. Now, drain and rinse the nests and squeeze them to remove remaining water 
  3. Pour the 950 ml of water into a pot, add the pre-boiled nests and bring to boil. Add the rock sugar and Jujube dates, stir everything well and let it simmer until the nests are completely soft. Serve the soup hot!


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Photos by Duc Ly, glennhurowith

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