The mere mention of birds nest soup conjures up images of a really strange concoction. Most have never tried it and a large number of people don’t even know someone that has. The Chinese first started using swallow nests for soup over 1500 years ago.
The saliva the swallows use to make the soup has a very high protein content, it’s not just digestive secretions, it has nutrient value.
In Malacca, Malaysia, I didn’t think I would stumble over any birds nest soup shops let alone a breeding ground for it. In the old Chinese quarter, only one street back from Jonker street and overlooking our hostel we found an old house turned into both breeding area and museum.
History of Birds Nest Soup
The first birds nest soup actually came from the Southern Asian countries, where most is still produced, and brought back by sea traders to the Emperors of the Tang dynasty. During the Tang reign the royal family and their guests alone could sample it. After the Tang dynasty it became popular among the Chinese because of its perceived nutritional properties and rarity.
Modern day demand is now spread across the world with Hong Kong and mainland China being the biggest importers of nests. Taiwan, Singapore, USA and the Middle East are also big importers, feeding the huge expat Chinese communities more than local people. Two types of nest are used, white is more common and red is rarer and much more expensive. Birds nest soup joins a long list of weird foods that people are able to experience more and more often thanks to travel.
What is Birds Nest Soup?
It involves using dried birds nests to make a soup. The type of bird and nest are extremely important in making the soup. All of the soups have a gelatinous texture to them and apparently are very nutritious. Swiftlets and Swallows are the most common types of birds used to make the nests. Both the red and white nests have the most nutritional value according to Chinese birds nest soup makers. Because of this they are the most sort after and cost the most to purchase.
Surprisingly the taste is predominately of the ocean. As the birds live and feed near the ocean and the nest is mainly produced from their saliva, spewdom, and droppings. It is also quite salty due to the connection with the ocean. Besides this the taste is quite bland in comparison to other Chinese dishes that most people will try. It is probably more of a status thing than an actual health benefit.
How Much Does a Bowl of Bird Nest Soup Cost?
It is the most expensive food eaten by people today. A bowl in a top restaurant in Hong Kong will sell for upwards of $40 for white and $100 US for a red soup. If you wanted to buy the raw nests to take home they range from $2000 per kilo for the white to $10,000 for the red nests. Due to the cost it is a food reserved for special occasions. Chinese New Year is the busiest time of the year for sales of the soup and the nests.
The rarity and the difficulty in harvesting the nests is one reason they are so expensive. The swallows always nest in very high rocky outcrops hundreds of feet in the air. Many harvesters die each year in pursuit of these nests. Using rickety wooden ladders hundreds of feet in the air there is no margin for error.
Malacca’s Birds Nest Soup Shop
Head deep enough into any Chinatown and you will find birds nests for sale. What made the Malacca shop so unique was that the front and some upper areas of the small house house dark areas to actually harvest the birds nests. We were shown the building and the nest processing by the curator of the museum who explained everything in great detail. We had flash lights to see the birds flying around and making their nests. Harvesting them here wasn’t hazardous, the building was only two stories high.
As a chef, to see the process from start to finish was amazing and a unique experience that I loved. With the comprehensive talk from the curator we glimpsed a world that few would see. Thailand is now the biggest producer of red birds nests with a limestone cave on a birds nest concession island. Borneo and Indonesia are the big harvesters of white nests.
Like the Malacca shop, there has been a push to convert deserted shop houses into breeding grounds for the swallows across Asia. Poured and plastered with concrete to mimic the natural caves the birds prefer, it has allowed people to increase supply. Prices haven’t dropped as it is still a vastly under supplied industry.
Our guide showed us a little trick to make sure the red bird nest was really red, not a dyed white. With nearly $8,000 difference you would want to be sure. You also need to make sure your pure white bird’s nest hasn’t been bleached, genuine white nests are a yellowish colour.
Recently with the demand, China actually stopped importing Malaysian bird nest due to counterfeit nests on the market. The Malaysian government has now employed RFID technology to combat this problem and therefor try to resume exports to China.
UPDATE: In December of 2017 China lifted its import ban on Malaysian birds nests which has seen a marked increase in the price of the Malaysian nests. As China’s middle class increases and the disposable income increases I can only see an increase in demand which will out strip supply for quite a few years to come.
Have you ever tried bird nest soup?