Ever Tasted Bird’s-Nest Soup?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Singapore
WHAT? Real bird’s-nest soup? Yes, made from a bird’s nest, just as anyone familiar with Chinese cuisine will tell you. This light, clear soup with delicate flavor is made from the edible nest of a swiftlet.
This bird measures some four and a half to five and a half inches from beak to tail. It is fast-flying, for the most part collecting its food while on the wing. It is sooty brown in color, frequents tropical coastlands and may be found as far north as South Vietnam and as far south as the Queensland coast of Australia.
The swiftlet actually weaves its nest with strands of its own coagulated saliva. The nest is glued to the roof or wall of some almost inaccessible cave. Harvesting of the nests is done early in the breeding season. First, all the old nests are swept off the cave walls or roof. Borneo natives will climb vertical bamboo poles to heights of a hundred feet or more, and with other balancing poles knock down the nests. As soon as new nests are constructed they are harvested, and this will be repeated several times. But finally the nests are left alone so that the birds may breed in peace.
The next step is to break the nests in pieces, dry them in the sun and ship them to towns and cities where native Chinese enjoy them in their homes or proudly introduce them to foreign guests in their restaurants.
Chinese appreciation of the bird’s nest goes deeper than mere taste buds. One well schooled in the traditions will tell you that there is medicinal value in this dish. True, medical science has given no official confirmation of the claim, but chemical analysis reveals that the gelatinous nest consists mainly of protein, with some carbohydrates and usable amounts of calcium, iron and thiamine.
Upper- and middle-class people can usually afford this soup whenever they are in the mood for it. In Western cities, of course, the cost will be quite high, but in Asian cities it is less expensive, even being sold at roadside stalls.
Perhaps the most adventurous way to experience it is to prepare it in one’s own kitchen. Here in Kuala Lumpur, as in most Southeast Asian cities, the bird’s nest is sold mainly in Chinese herbal medicine shops. As we enter one of these, the salesman politely inquires what we want.
“Yin woh,” we answer in Cantonese.
“Ah,” the salesman exclaims, assuming the air of an expert. “Let me recommend the best.” He takes out his goods and continues: “This is Pah Sai yin, the most popular variety among connoisseurs.”
“What makes it the best?”
“Because you can cook it for a whole day and the little strands will hold their shape. This type is from Borneo, and I can guarantee you will not be disappointed in it.”
It appears that the nests are available in various qualities, priced all the way from 24 Malay dollars per tahil (1-1/3 oz.) down to 7.50 Malay dollars for the local nests from Pulau Tioman. We do notice that the local variety is in loose strands, not at all like the tight spoon shape of the imported variety.
After some bargaining and consequent reduction in price, we speed home with our purchase. Overnight the nest is soaked in water. Then the first job in the morning is to settle down to picking away patiently in order to clean the bird’s down, feathers and other impurities from the softened, expanded nest.
An obliging Chinese neighbor informs us: “Just add enough water to the cleaned nest to attain the desired consistency, enough rock sugar for the right degree of sweetness. Then cook for two hours in a double boiler.”
Pressed for another savory recipe, she goes on: “A simple way is to cook the nest with some chicken and ham, both shredded, and the appropriate amount of water. Double boil for three hours. And to dress up the dish one can do a fu-yong, that is, stir a beaten egg into the soup just before lifting it from the stove.”
“When I got married over forty years ago,” she reminisced, “I had to serve tea to all the elder in-laws. And, since our families were well-to-do, the ‘tea’ we used was sweet bird’s-nest soup.”