The skyrocketing price of edible Swiftlet nests used to make the Chinese delicacy Bird’s Nest Soup has had a noticeable effect on the numbers of the cave-nesting birds, though not the one you might expect. A construction boom of wood and concrete barns has boosted the population of Swiftlets along with their valuable (and delicious) nests.
The Other Super Bowl
Have you ever eaten Bird’s Nest Soup? If not, would you even want to? Reasons to avoid this traditional Chinese delicacy range from its astonishingly high price to the mere fact it’s made from a bird’s nest… though the latter is somewhat of a misconception.
(image via: Scott Sporleder)
Bird’s Nest Soup – the REAL deal, not the cut-rate noodle-padded concoction foisted on the unknowing – isn’t made from your everyday, garden-variety bird’s nest. That would be gross and disgusting: twigs, feathers, bird excreta does not a proper meal make! Nosirree Bob, you’ll be happy to know that the particular type of bird from which Bird’s Nest Soup is sourced does not use twigs, feathers or any other “foreign” object to build their cup-like egg repositories.
If you’re gratefully digging in to this rare and special dish once reserved for China’s highest and mightiest nobility, perhaps we shouldn’t reveal that the bird’s nests that are the basis of the recipe are constructed purely of bird saliva.
Chicken spit. Robin’s gob. Now stop that coughing, choking and flailing about, you might spill the soup… and what with the main ingredient costing up to $10,000 per kilo (around $4,500 per lb) for the ultra-rare Red Nest, you don’t want to spill a single drop!
The high price of prime Bird’s Nest is a function of basic economics: low supply and high demand. As China’s population becomes wealthier, their demand for animal products used in traditional medicines and recipes rises as well. This is good if you’re rich and Chinese. On the other hand, try asking the rhinos, tigers and sharks how basic economics is treating them lately.
(image via: Mess of Commentary)
When it comes to Bird’s Nest Soup, however, skyrocketing demand for their nests hasn’t resulted in the loss of both birds and nests – just the opposite! Human nest harvesters have realized that more birds = more nests = more money, and since constructing more of the caves in which the White-nest Swiftlet (Aerodramus fuciphagus) prefer to build their nests, they’ve settled on the next best thing: artificial nest houses.
The Drool that Rules
Let’s take a step back and examine these edible nests, built by the male swifts over a period of approximately 35 days from their own saliva in (usually) complete darkness.
Swifts are related to hummingbirds and are insectivores. Like those other cave-dwellers, bats, swifts have evolved a form of echolocation that enables them to navigate to and from their nests deep inside caves.
The nests themselves are vaguely cup-shaped and are affixed to the cave walls with the birds’ gummy saliva. The saliva acts as a powerful cement that holds the nests together, while giving them a light color and gauzy appearance.
(image via: Harfang Perdu)
For centuries, people have climbed sheer rock walls and braved both bad air and thick darkness in order to harvest these nests. Why anyone would want to EAT the nests is a mystery wrapped in an enigma over 400 years old.
According to traditional Chinese folklore, consuming bird’s nests dissolved in a chicken-broth-based soup can improve digestion, raise one’s libido, strengthen the voice, relieve symptoms of asthma, and generally boost the immune system.
(image via: Cycling Round the Ricebowl)
Modern analysis of the nests have revealed they are rich in proteins and a variety of amino acids. While these nutrients are easily sourced in the modern diet, a big bowl of Bird’s Nest Soup may have made an indelible impression on those who imbibed it in earlier, less nutrition-conscious times.
So-called Edible Nest Swiftlets are native to the coasts of several Southeast Asian nations and both the shores and inland regions of Indonesia’s thousands of islands, especially the large island of Borneo at the huge limestone caves at Niah and Gomantong.
When both the acquisition of wealth and the demand for Bird’s Nest Soup revived following the death of Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong in the late 1970s, it became obvious to local nest harvesters that the caves of northern Borneo would not be able to supply enough Swiftlet nests regardless of the prices paid for them.