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Bird's Nests Are Expensive and Rare

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Soups and Congees

Summer Volume: 2017 Issue: 24(2) pages: 10 to 11

These exotica are common in a soup at a wedding banquet and at other honorific meals. They are very expensive, no matter when or how used. The Chinese see them as expressions of generosity. They are known as delicacies throughout the Chinese world, and in some places cost more than a thousand dollars a pound.

These nests are from tiny birds known as swiftlets, their botanical name is Aerodramus fuciphagus if they are white nesting ones, Aerodramus maximus, if black ones. The International Trade in Endangered Species organization has proposed they now be called Collocalia apodidae or C. fuciphaga.

Also known as swallow’s nests, their use is in a verbal war between environmental protectionists and believers in traditional Chinese culinary customs. Their nests are collected after the young fly away abandoning them, and they remain airborne most of the time. These nests are found in countries chronically short of foreign currency, and that is one reason why it is difficult to control scavenging them.

In Thailand, for example, the government owns all their nests, and they are important export items contracted with business folk many of whom have subcontracts with those who actually collect them. Other countries can have their own rules as to who, how, if, and when they can be collected.

Names, behaviors, and businesses aside, these nests are made from the saliva of these birds and when they dry, they are cement-like needing lots of soaking, washing, and cleaning to remove feathers and other debris. This has to be done before preparing them for a soup or another dish.

It is interesting to note that these tiny birds eat more than half their body weight in insects every day, so, for every ten grams of their body weight, they eat some seven thousand insects every day. A decrease or increase in their weight means a huge difference in how many insects each bird actually ingests.

The Chinese believe their nests in use are sponge-like. They also believe that eating them is good for the skin as they give a person a youthful appearance. Some of their nests are more rare than others, particularly those called ‘blood nests. They have a reddish tinge that some say is blood in their saliva; but not everyone agrees. Those with and without this reddish color are shown on this page and on the cover. Note these bird’s nests are always sold dried and shaped this way.

Swiftlets are said to fly in the dark seeking remote locations for new nests. Those collecting them must climb on bamboo poles to reach them, and most are young and lithe and scamper up the poles often with their tutors showing the way. Many poles they climb on were hammered in location, some virtually cemented into ceilings hidden from view.

We learn the climbers are mostly boys, men, and monkeys trained to retrieve it three times a season. Before doing so, they seek permission praying and saying: “Gods of the pillar, I have my rada, it was my father’s tool so please accept the gifts he and I left below of tobacco and incense. We thank you for your help as we collect this fine food and we are holding resin between our teeth.” As they climb, they watch bat eyes gleam and sparks fall from their mouths into the blackness below.

The climbers tap each bamboo pole before stepping on it to test its strength. That is the only noise they hear as they climb putting the gathered nests into bags strapped to their bodies. At the day’s end, they share food below, often a fish stew warmed over a campfire, then go to sleep before the next day/s climb.

Experts tell us that there are different colored nests, more than just the two pictured. Because different articles cite them differently, we are unsure which is which, if different just by color, swiftlet type, or other things.

More than sixty percent of the world bird nest supply gets sold in Hong Kong, it is the world’s largest marketplace. They sell about two hundred tons each year worth more than thirty-five million dollars. They are also the world’s largest consumers of these nests.

Experts tell us the best ones are from Thailand and are the thickest; second best are those from Vietnam. Others come from Indonesia, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Sarawak, Vietnam, and Burma, and that their nests are most often used in soups. They are also most loved by those convalescing from many an illness. Several TCM practitioners said they highly recommend them to those with lung complaints. They said the black nests contain the most impurities, red ones have iron oxide from blood or from rocks the birds may be eating.

Almost all birds nests are shipped to Chinese communities around the globe after they are cleaned, packed, and dried in the shape seen on page 10. They are then included in long-cooked chicken-based soups consumed for medical or cultural reasons.

Environmentalists feel these nests are not typical medical products and countries using them should not import, sell, or use them. For those that do want to use them, a few recipes follow. We have never prepared any, mostly due to their expense, but we have eaten them in soups at many a banquet. Chinese friends and Chinese chefs tell us they adore making and eating this soup and other dishes using these nests whenever and where ever available.

Bird's Nest Soup

1 pound bird’s nets, soaked overnight in two quarts warm water, drained in the morning
½ pound pork, chopped
1 Tablespoon hoisin sauce
½ Tablespoon oyster sauce
½ teaspoon salt
1/4 pound shredded cooked chicken breast
2 Tablespoons minced smoked ham
2 Tablespoons cilantro, coarsely minced


1. Soak dried bird’s nest for two hours, then add two quarts of boiling water and remove any feathers or dark particles left; then drain them again.
2. Cover the bird’s nest with two quarts boiling water and simmer for two hours.
3. Add the pork and simmer for two hours longer.
4. Next, add sauces and salt, chicken breast and ham, and simmer one half hour longer.
5. Pour into a pre-heater soup tureen, sprinkle cilantro on top, and serve.

Bird's Nest Rice Soup

1 recipe of bird’s nest soup
1 cup rice cooked for two hours in three quarts of water
2 cups diced cooked chicken
2 scallions, minced


1. Prepare bird’s nest soup and simmer it with the cooked rice and the rice water for one hour , then add the diced chicken.
2. Add scallions, simmer fifteen minutes, then serve.

Bird's Nest Rice Soup Ham and Mushrooms

2 ounces bird’s nest. soaked overnight, then drained
1 teaspoon baking soda
3quarts chicken broth
2 cups Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 pound chicken breast, shredded
2 Chinese black mushrooms
2 fresh water chestnuts, peeled and diced
2 Tablespoons diced smoked ham
1 egg, beaten then fried, and then slivered


1. Pour one quart boiling water over soaked and drained bird’s nests, then stir in the baking soda, and soak for two more hours, then drain again.
2. Soak mushrooms in one cup of hot water until soft. Then discard their stems or shred them and use them when making a stock or add the soaking water to this soup.
3. Simmer all broth and soaking liquids, the bird’s nests, rice wine, salt, chicken pieces, mushrooms and their soaking water, and water chestnuts then simmer for one hour.
4. Then add the ham and simmer for half an hour, add the egg, stir well, and serve in a pre-heated soup tureen or in pre-heated individual soup bowls.

Bird's Nest Rice Soup With Rock Sugar

2 quarts bird’s nest soup
½ cup white or brown rock sugar
20 sweet cherries, pitted


1. Simmer the bird’s nest soup and the rock sugar for half an hour.
2. Next, add the cherries, simmer for three minutes, then serve hot, warm, or cool.

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