Cookbook Profile

Bird's Nests

by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo

Steamed Sweet Bird's Nest Soup


The Chinese prize these small, cup-shaped bird's nests, which are used to make sweet and savory soups, as highly as they do shark's fins. The homes of tiny swifts that migrate annually to the islands and cliffs of Southeast Asia, the nests are the dried spittle the birds use to weave their abodes from twigs, leaves, and feathers. For more than half a millennium, the Chinese have treasured these rare nests, believing they extend life, strengthen the immune system, encourage growth, and preserve youthful complexions.

Since the time of the Ming Dynasty, Chinese traders have crossed the waters to Southeast Asia to what are now the Maylaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, to Borneo, to Thailand, and to Indonesia to trade silks, porcelains, gold, and iron for these nests. Today, nests from these same Southeast Asian areas are exported to China, with the caves in Niah on Sarawak regarded as the source of the finest nests. Those who collect them are a brave lot. They scale cliffs and climb beams in rotting houses to gather the small nests, each weighing about an ounce.

The swifts build their nests high up, often on nearly vertical cliffs or in shallow caves. During their breeding season, the birds secrete their gelatinous spittle, which becomes the basis for their nests. Some of these nests, of almost pure spittle, are called white, and they are the most desirable and thus most expensive.

As noted earlier, whole white nests, always labeled "wild," can cost thousands of dollars a pound. Pieces of these white nests are called dragon teeth, and even they command steep prices. Among the most expensive nests are the so-called wild gold nests from Vietnam and the Thai blood nests, which describes their color, the result of iron in the bird's diet. So called black nests, which contain bits of other materials the birds use to build their nests, are the least expensive.

Almost all bird's nests must be soaked and rinsed twice to remove impurities. Expensive white nests need minimal preparation, and black nests require a good deal more. Bird's nests are usually sold loose by weight and sometimes in packages. Packaged nests typically have many impurities mixed with the dried strands of saliva, necessitating considerable cleaning.

Throughout China, bird's nest soup is prepared as a health and beauty tonic. Tea shops serve sweet soups, and restaurants offer savory soups midmeal or sweet soups to end a meal. In Fujian, children are sent to bed, but after they have slept for a while, they are awakened and fed sweet bird's nest soup because the Fujianese believe the soup is more beneficial if it is consumed while the body is at rest.


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This page created June 2010