It might not be something that is well known in Mzansi – and I confess it is definitely not on my bucket list of dishes to try – but bird’s nest soup is a prized delicacy in some parts of the world. So much so that farming with these birds has become a niche agricultural industry.
Because it is made from the actual nests of swiftlet birds, bird’s nest soup is one of the most expensive delicacies in Asian cuisine and people are making a fortune in farming edible bird’s nests.
Legend has it that for hundreds of years Chinese communities across China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore boiled and ingested these birds’ nests. This was done particularly by older people, the ill or pregnant, or by people seeking a bit of a facial glow.
The birds build the nest by weaving together strands of their own spit, using it glue their nest hundreds of feet high on sheer cave walls.
Soup seasoned with bird droppings
According to an article in Smithsonian Magazine, when the nest is cooked it yields a slick, nearly flavourless broth “that’s prized for such medicinal chestnuts as increased longevity and, you guessed it, libido”.
According to the article the monetary incentive is shocking as swiftlet nests can sell for more than $2,400 (currently around R40 000) per kilogram.
The taste of the soup remains can vary greatly, depending on its origins. Writer and chef Andrew Zimmern wrote that the soup’s flavour depends largely on the geographic region of the nest.
“I love nests harvested near the ocean. They offer a sea-salty, briny flavour. The birds eat primarily saltwater fish, the nests are full of their saliva, sputum, and droppings. It only makes sense that the nests would taste of sea.
“Some chefs like to play up the salty flavour (and sometimes sliminess) of the soup. I’m cool with that. To me, it just tastes like Mom’s chicken soup, seasoned with bird spit and lots of slimy chunks,” wrote Zimmern.
Although very profitable, farming swiftlet nests is a very sticky business. One must endure the noise hundreds of birds and of course the stickiness of the nests themselves.
The nests are traditionally harvested from caves. People use bamboo poles to reach the nests, then scrape them from the cave walls. As the demand for this delicacy grew, humans had to find new ways of harvesting them and the idea of farming the nest was introduced.
There are many ways to farm these nests, however an article from New Scientist recommends that one easier way is to build concrete bird houses.
“These, in a cornfield in Selangor, Malaysia, are fitted with electronic tweeters playing swiftlet calls to attract the birds. Inside the structures, male swiftlets meticulously build their nests over 35 days, coughing up thick phlegmy strands of spit to bind it. The nests are often harvested before eggs are laid, so the birds build more,” according to the article.
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