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Bird's Nests: An Expensive Tonic Food

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Unusual Ingredients

Spring Volume: 2019 Issue: 26(1) pages: 23 to 24

Chinese believe this life-prolonging anti-aging tonic food aids the pancreas and the lungs, and many other body parts by nourishing and stimulating cell growth. They believe it good for the eyes and the lungs. and that it helps the elderly recover from many an illnesses and the effects of aging.

Often served at feasts and to folks needing nutrition, these nests are made from the saliva of a swallow, most found in caves or houses where these birds are raised. The former are more firm, the latter more smooth. They are sold in oval shapes moistened and dried in forms to make these shapes, reddish ones called ‘blood nests’.

Bird’s nests are a billion dollar industry with sales centered in Hong Kong. The birds are mostly swiftlets whose saliva makes the nests, and they are most often raised in Indonesia, Borneo, or Thailand in concrete houses constructed for them. Most are near the sea where these gelatinous producing birds live in large houses. The males of these Aerodramus fuciphagus are a five billion dollar industry most used by Chinese who love them in soups particularly for honorific occasions such as weddings. A few are Aerodramus maximus swiftlets, small and black, whose saliva produces white nests popular with the Chinese.

This most expensive world food, a delicacy, the Chinese call yan wo, can cost thousands of dollars a pound. Some places require certification of their origin for health reasons, such as harboring bird flu virus, others just being assured they are legal and not fake. And not with some other problem. Many places forbid their sale, the reasons vary other than those already discussed.

The Chinese do believe they are nourishing, appetizing, and delicate, and those made with small pieces of these dried nests can be used for main dishes, desserts, congees and rice dishes, as well as in soups and for dim sum items.

According to an ancient Compendium of Marteria Medica, they are also used for nourishing the kidneys, stomach, spleen, and the lungs. Cleaning those where the birds were raised in caves, though more expensive, can be priced at higher levels because they have more dirt and feathers, and so cleaning them is time consuming.

Thin ones often get crushed in shipping and is one reason though still called ‘superior’ these oval cakes can be less costly. The highest quality are called ‘premium’ lower classes called First Class, Superior, White, Yellow, and Grade B Nests. The broken ones can be called balls or strips, and their cooking times do vary. The bird’s nests raised in houses can need more time when cooking them.

All bird’s nests need to be checked for cleanliness; not soaked until they are cleaned of feathers, dirt, and any other debris. Then, they need to be soaked for up to three hours, then stewed for three or more hours longer. The size of the nest, also called its ‘cake’ determines how much longer will be needed. Some chefs tell us they need to know the country of origin, and the type of nest, its thickness, too, to determine that, but no chef could tell us the time for a nest from a particular country; can you? As these times do vary, experience seems to dictate these time differences, but no chef could attach a time to a country or bird’s nest type. Several chefs did tell us that one oval cake can swell and be ten times heavier when fully swollen, weight-wise.

Bird's Nest, Melon, and Seafood

1 soaked bird’s nest cake, excess water discarded
1/4 pound fresh shrimp, shells and veins discarded
1/4 pound crab meat, cartilage and shell discarded
1 cup chicken stock
1 egg white
1 pound winter melon, peel and sees discarded, then sliced into rounds
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon cornstarch, divided
1 egg white
1 teaspoon sesame oil, divided
dash of ground white pepper


1. Soak bird’s nest three hours or overnight, then drain and discard excess water
2. Mince shrimp and crab meat, the bird’s nest, too.
3. Cut melon into half-inch thick circles and steam then in half the stock and half the sesame oil for five minutes, then drain them on paper towels, and dust their tops with half the cornstarch.
4. Mix bird’s nest pieces with the shrimp and crab meat, stir in the salt, and half the cornstarch and half the sesame oil, then put bird’s nest and seafood mixture, and half teaspoon in the center of each melon slice.
5. Heat the rest of the sesame oil in a wok or small fry pan, add the seafood-egg white mixture, and stir-fry it for one minute then pour it over the winter melon circles, and steam them covered for three minutes, then serve.

Birds's Nest Pudding

1 soaked any kind of bird’s nest, soaked three hours
5 eggs
1 cup milk
1 cup stock
1 teaspoon ginger juice
½ teaspoon granulated sugar


1. Drain bird’s nest, and then simmer it for fifteen minutes.
2. Beat eggs until light yellow, mix the milk, stock, ginger juice, sugar, and a dash of sesame oil, and steam for twelve minutes.
3. Cover, add the milk mixture, and steam for twelve minutes more, uncover, and then serve.

Shrimp and Bird's Nests

3 Tablespoons bird’s nests, soaked for an hour, then drained, the water discarded
12 ounces fresh shrimp, shells and veins discarded
1 Tablespoon sugar
3 egg whites
dash of salt
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
1/4 teaspoon granulated sugar
½ teaspoon thin soy sauce
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/4 cup chicken stock (optional)


1. Dry shrimp with paper towels, mince them and the soaked bird’s nests, then mix in the egg whites, sugar, cornstarch, and salt.
2. Use a little of the oil, grease ten ceramic spoons, and put some of the well-mixed shrimp mixture into each of them and steam over boiling water for five minutes then cool slightly and ease the shrimp

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