Would you like to try this? This soup may not be made from twigs and moss but the main ingredient is, in fact, a bird’s nest. The housing
of Southeast Asian swiftlets is composed of strands of saliva. While this may sound rather unappetizing for many of you, it actually makes
the traditional Chinese soup one of the most expensive dishes in the world. And if you are into superfoods and have a spare penny, you
might want to check it out at least for its alleged health benefits.
The high cost of bird’s nest soup comes from the dangerous retrieval process of the nests, and the painstaking cleaning they go through to
become safe to eat.
For the past 400 years, Chinese cooking has been home to one of the most expensive delicacies in the world, bird’s nest soup.
Made from edible bird nests, called the “Caviar of the East,” bird’s nest soup is extremely rare and extremely valuable. The main ingredient,
the nest of the swiftlet bird, costs anywhere from $2,500 to $10,000 per kilogram, resulting in a single bowl of soup that will set you back
anywhere from $30 to $100.
The hefty price tag comes from the dangerous and extensive process of procuring the nests and cleaning them, so they are safe for consumption.
In the wild, the swiftlet builds its nest at dizzying heights, usually in mountaintop caves. Native islanders in Malaysia often visit the Madai
Caves to scout for swifter nests, risking their lives in the process.
Three times a year, scouts climb up to the highest reaches of the near-pitch-black caves, armed only with a helmet, handmade ropes, and
makeshift ladders. However, reaching the nests is just half the battle.
Once there, the climbers must be able to determine which nests are ready for picking, and which nests are not. The nests must be picked
precisely at the right time after one batch of eggs has hatched, but before the female swiftlet lays another or else the nests won’t sell for as
high a price.
Traditionally the bird’s nests are collected from the wild, though due to pollution and agricultural restrictions, certain nesting houses have
been created for swiftlets to nest in.
As the nests are constructed from a mixture of bird feathers and bird saliva, the nests must be cleaned before they can be used for soup.
Nest cleaners traditionally use tiny tools to pull each individual feather out of the nest, though occasionally commercial cleaners and
bleaching agents are used to move the process along.
What’s left behind after cleaning is a small, hardened shell made almost entirely of swiftlet saliva. The most prized are “red nests” from the
red-nest swiftlet, which can cost as much as $10,000 per kilogram. However, the most common are white and black-nest swiftlet nests,
which run between $5,000 and $6,000 per kilogram.
According to those who have tasted it, bird’s nest soup is soft and jelly-like. The swiftlet saliva is roughly 70 percent protein, which, when
dissolved in water, creates a gelatinous mixture with a sweet flavour.
In addition to bird’s nest soup, the swiftlet nests can be used as an ingredient in congee or boiled rice, or as an addition to egg tarts or egg
cream desserts. Bird’s nest jellies are also common.
Though it’s not a part of a swiftlet’s body, the nests are considered animal byproducts and are thus regulated strictly by various food
administrations and departments of agriculture. The import and export of swiftlet nests in some countries are prohibited, due to H5N1
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