Some months back, I made vague promises to myself of researching Bird’s Nest Soup. Since, of late, I have also been advocating soup as a method of achieving weight loss whilst also not spending money I figured it was finally time to fulfill said promises and go look it up.
It turns out that Bird’s Nest Soup may be light on your waistline, but certainly not on your wallet.
Unlike Mock Turtle Soup, true Bird’s Nest Soup actually contains the real article. But like Mock Turtle Soup, the news is still kinda weird. Well, at least for the less culinarily adventurous than Anthony Bourdain, Stefan Gates, and the like. It’s a dish I would call “Culturally Specific”, in that it comes from a specific part of the world and has so far failed to to crossover into other cultures, not least because of its relative cost. Now you might think that, from at least a conservationist point of view, this is probably a good thing, but in fact the opposite is true. The main ingredient of Bird’s Nest Soup supplies (according to the good folk at Wikipedia anyway) about 5% of Indonesia’s export income, and and also ensures the survival of a species.
Because Bird’s Nest Soup is exactly that. It is a soup made from (or around) the nest of the Cave Swiftlet. The Cave Swiftlet is a bird native to Southeast Asia notable for two things: that it uses echolocation to navigate, as bats do; and that somewhere back in time, someone ate one of its nests and found it quite tasty. The male Cave Swiftlet builds its nests out of saliva you see, basically spitting and stringing the bits together until they form a sort of cup stuck to the wall of a cave, with occasional bits of other “foreign” matter. Such as the odd twig or leaf.
This is where Man comes in. The nests are harvested, which was initially a rather dangerous process as it involved climbing to heights in dark caves. Then they are dried for preservation, and occasionally given a red pigment. To make the soup the nest is then soaked to soften it again (much like wild mushrooms) then cooked in a chicken broth to form the soup. I should point out here that once the nest has been soaked, the bits of “foreign” matter are then removed before the nest is cooked.
Because the nest of the Cave swiftlet is considered such a delicacy in Asia (though mostly in China) it has become a very lucrative source of income for Indonesia. So much so that special concrete structures have been built to house the nest, and effectively, farm the birds. Which makes it rather a win-win-win for Indonesia. Harvesting the nests is now much safer, the species is protected, and Indonesia is now the main exporter of one of the most expensive animal products consumed by man.
Should you encounter Bird’s Nest Soup on the menu of your local Chinese restaurant, it’s actually more than likely that unless said soup has en extremely high price tag ($30 or more in the US for a bowl), it will most probably be made with very thin noodles instead. If you are culinarily timid, however, it would be wise to ask the waiter about its provenance before ordering. I consider myself to be really rather brave on that front, but must admit that I am nowhere near so brave financially as I am culinarily, so it’s unlikely I would order the real article. Instead, I’d be hoping someone else does, so I can try theirs. Who am I to say if it’s delicious or demented just because it’s alien to me? If I ever get rich, I’ll let you all know…