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More About Bird's Nest and Snake

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Unusual Ingredients

Spring Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(1) page(s): 13 and 14

Special ingredients in Chinese cuisine are special because some are rare, others considered tonic foods, some a special textural delicacy, and some for reasons not clearly defined or understood. Many are unusual items, indeed! Two about which a lot is known are bird's nest and snake. Flavor and Fortune in Volume 2(3) on pages 11 to 13 discussed several unusual ingredients from bear's paw to camel's toe. Some of the items in that article were rarely seen except on banquet tables in imperial cuisines and during imperial times. Rich families sometimes did indulge in them on very special occasions, but most others did not; nonetheless, as if they really knew these foods, they spoke of them with admiration and awe.

Bird's Nests are one of the special foods that did make its way to some folks tables on honored occasions; probably because they were more affordable. The nests of this swallow along with ginseng, deer antler, and tremella were honored tonic foods ordinary people may have had once or twice in a lifetime, perhaps at a wedding, a special birthday party, or a special banquet.

Considered precious and nourishing, the congealed saliva that makes up the nest of swallows was eaten because folks believed it stimulated cell and epidermal growth, made skin glow, and benefitted the elderly and those recovering from illness. Today, because it is more available and more affordable, many people cook it at home, particularly for their beloved elderly parents, their seriously ill relatives, and for those on the road to recovery.

In the issue discussed above, information about this precious and nourishing food was provided as were three recipes: Bird's Nest Soup, Bird's Nest with Rock Sugar, and Savory Bird's Nest Soup. Bird's nests were also discussed in M. Leung's article in the last issue of Flavor and Fortune, its Volume 6(4) on pages 9 and 10. Soaking instructions appeared in that issue on page 15.

Bird's nests are the mildest and some say the most delicious among tonic foods. In earlier times, they were ranked first among top delicacies, were quite expensive, and they came from the Fujian and Guangdong provinces. The average person's best chance to enjoy them was to dream of them. Not so today. Most nests come from Thailand, come whole or as pieces of nest, are more available, and they are more economical.

Snake is another tonic food used in a medicinal sense. Now it is a popular winter food in the south of China. Earlier, it was also popular in the north. Snake is considered warming and strengthening. In winter, snake banquets can be had with every course using one of more snakes as the main ingredient. Of course they are expensive, but they are considered a good way to prepare for the coming season. Poisonous snakes are most valuable and one or more of them are often mixed with non-poisonous snakes in each dish. See the Leung article cited above. Snakes are also consumed other than at meals for different health reasons. Men are offered snake bile with a strong alcoholic beverage such as mao tai to enhance their virility. And, it is recommended that men and women with rheumatism drink wine in which a poisonous snake marinated, staying there for three to five years. That wine is considered a curative.

Future articles will discuss other special ingredients such as hasma, a special part of a white winter frog, and tree seeds. Both are available year round, frozen, dried, or in jars. Now, enjoy some other recipes for bird's nests; some for snake, too.
Bird's Nest Dumplings in Soup
2 ounces bird's nest pieces
1/2 pound lean pork
1/4 pound shrimp
3 dried shiitake mushrooms
1/2 teaspoon each of salt, sugar, and sesame oil
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon corn oil
1 cup high gluten flour
1 egg
1 egg white
6 cups chicken stock boiled to reduce it to four cups
1. In cold water, soak the nest pieces in the refrigerator overnight, then bring to the boil, simmer ten minutes, drain, and cool them. Next, using a tweezer, clean them of all debris. Repeat this process, if needed.
2. Mince pork coarsely with a cleaver, shell then remove veins of the shrimp and mince them.
3. Soak the mushrooms for half an hour in warm water, remove stems and discard, then chop them.
4. Mix pork, shrimp, mushrooms, salt, sugar, soy sauce, sesame oil, soy sauce, cornstarch, and oil.
5. Mix flour, egg, and egg white and knead until it is a soft dough, then let rest covered for half an hour.
6. Roll dough until it is very thin then cut it into six inch circles. Make eight of these circles and fill each with one-eight of the filling and press the edges to seal. Then steam them for twelve minutes.
7. After reducing the stock, keep it boiling. and put each dumpling into a soup bowl and pour boiling stock over it and serve one bowl to each of eight people.
Bird's Nest for Breakfast
2 ounces bird's nest pieces
2 conpoy (dried scallops), soaked two hours then steamed for twenty minutes, cooled, and then shred
1 cup long grain rice
4 Tablespoons glutinous rice, soaked for two hours in hot water
2 Tablespoons Smithfied ham, shredded
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)
8 pigeon eggs, simmered in water near the boiling point for five minutes, peeled and cut in half
2 Tablespoons coriander leaves, torn into small pieces
1. Prepare birds nest as in step one in the recipe above.
2. Bring ten to twelve cups of water to the boil, add the conpoy shreds and both kinds of rice. Reduce heat to simmer, cover and cook for two hours. Do check periodically and add half cup of water at a time, if needed.
3. Add bird's nest pieces, ham, salt and sesame oil and simmer for ten minutes more.
4. Pour into individual bowls, add one pigeon egg to each and sprinkle coriander leaves on top, then serve.
Fruit and Bird's Nest
2 ounces bird's nest pieces
2 Tablespoons small white rock sugar pieces
2 almost ripe peaches, remove stone, blanch and peel, then cut each half in four slices
10 blanched almonds, halved
1. Prepare bird's nest soaking them in water overnight in the refrigerator. Drain, then bring to the boil and simmer for ten minutes; then drain and cool. Clean them of any drbris with a tweezer, and repeat as necessary.
2. Boil sugar with one cup of water until it dissolves, then transfer it to the top of a double boiler and keep over boiling water.
3. Add peaches, bird's nest pieces, and the almonds and simmer over boiling water for one hour. Serve with the liquid putting some into individual bowls.
Chicken and Snake, Cantonese style
4 ounces skinned and deboned snake meat
4 ounces chicken breast
2 ounces fish maw, soaked for ten minutes in warm water
2 Tablespoons corn oil
2 slices fresh ginger, cut into slivers
2 scallions, cut into half inch pieces
1 piece tangerine peel soaked in warm water for ten minutes, then slivered
1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed with 2 teaspoons cold water
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
dash white pepper
5 wonton skins sliced fine and deep fried until crisp, then drained
1 white chrysanthemum, petals only
1. Shred snake meat, chicken breast, and fish maw.
2. Heat corn oil and fry ginger and scallions for one minute, add chicken and fry until white then remove and drain. Next, fry the snake meat for one minute and remove and drain it. And finally, fry fish maw for two minutes then add half cup water and simmer it for five minutes.
3. Return chicken and snake to the wok or pot, add the tangerine peel, cornstarch mixture, sesame oil, and pepper, and boil until thickened. Pour into a serving bowl and top with the fried wonton skin pieces and the flower petals. Serve.
Chicken, Snake, and Young Ginger
1 chicken breast, poached for ten minutes, drained then slivered
4 ounces snake meat, slivered then poached for three minutes and drained
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
2 ounces of young ginger, mix it with two tablespoons coarse salt for ten minutes
2 Tablespoons corn oil
1/4 cup canned pineapple chunks, cut into slivers
1/4 cup red pepper slivers
1/4 cup green pepper slivers
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon Swatow rice vinegar
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon chili paste with garlic
dash white pepper
1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with two tablespoons of cold water
1. Mix prepared chicken and snake with cornstarch.
2. Rinse ginger thoroughly then dry with paper towels.
3. Heat oil and fry chicken and snake for one minute, add ginger, pineapple, and peppers and stir-fry for half a minute until well coated.
4. Add broth, vinegar, soy sauce, chili paste, and white pepper and as soon as it comes to the boil, add cornstarch mixture, cook until it thickens and clears and serve.
Snake, Corn, and Crab Meat Soup
4 ounces snake, slivered then poached for three minutes and drained
2 ounces fresh or canned crab meat, all tendons removed
1/2 chicken breast, poached for ten minutes, then slivered
1 small can creamed corn, blend one half until very smooth
1 Tablespoon rendered chicken fat
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
dash white pepper
8 cups chicken broth
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with two tablespoons cold water
1. Put snake, crab meat, chicken, and both portions of creamed corn into a pot with chicken fat, soy sauce, sesame oil, and white pepper.
2. Heat chicken broth to the boiling point and pour over all the ingredients and simmer for three minutes.
3. Add the cornstarch mixture and boil for one minute, then serve.

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