Posted by: 1of10boyz | February 21, 2013

Bird’s Nest


This story actually begins almost a year ago in Shanghai. LaDawna needed to have her knee checked and I went with her. We went to dinner on The Bund. Now, for reference, the majority of the meals that we have eaten in China have been cheap, really cheap. We have fed lots of people for just a small amount of cash. We had one party out in town where we had 20 people at the meal the the cost at the end, including beer and wine, for about 1200 RMB. That is less than $200 USD for a pretty good party meal that included more than 10 services including some very fresh seafood. So we were not expecting to sit in any restaurant in China where the soup started at 550 RMB and even more than 1300 RMB. Yes, that is right a bowl of soup for $80-$200. I had heard rumors about expensive soup but this was crazy. Yes everything else on the menu was steep too. I ordered a bowl for me and a bowl for LaDawna and we enjoyed it. It was really good, actually some of the best soup we have ever had.

Fast forward to Chinese New Year 2013. I am standing on a walkway in the middle of the mouth of a cave in the jungle of Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia. I see some dudes standing down on the cave floor and another on the walkway looking up and pointing at stuff as it falls to the ground. The cave is Niah Cave.

Apologies or I should say credit to Wikipedia for the following:

“Bird’s nest soup is a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. A few species of swift, the cave swifts, are renowned for building the saliva nests used to produce the unique texture of this soup.

The edible bird’s nests are among the most expensive animal products consumed by humans. The nests have been used in Chinese cooking for over 400 years, most often as bird’s nest soup.

The Chinese name for bird’s nest soup, yàn wō (燕窝), translates literally as “swallow’s nest”. When dissolved in water, the birds’ nests have a gelatinous texture used for soup or sweet tong sui. It is mostly referred to as “yan wo” unless references are made to the salty or sweet soup in Chinese cuisine.

The most heavily harvested nests are from the Edible-nest Swiftlet or White-nest Swiftlet (Aerodramus fuciphagus) and the Black-nest Swiftlet (Aerodramus maximus). The white nests and the red nests are supposedly rich in nutrients, which are traditionally believed to provide health benefits, such as aiding digestion, raising libido, improving the voice, alleviating asthma, improving focus, and an overall benefit to the immune system.

Most nests are built during the breeding season by the male swiftlet over a period of 35 days. They take the shape of a shallow cup stuck to the cave wall. The nests are composed of interwoven strands of salivary laminae cement. Both nests have high levels of calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium.

Hong Kong and the United States are the largest importers of these nests. In Hong Kong, a bowl of bird’s nest soup would cost $30 USD to $100 USD.

A kilogram of white nest can cost up to $2,000 USD, and a kilogram of red nests can cost up to $10,000 USD. The white nests are commonly treated with a red pigment, but methods have been developed to determine an adulterated nest. Natural red cave nests are often only found in limestone caves in a bird nest concession island in Thailand. The high cost and demand has attracted counterfeiters, leading to the halt of Malaysian nest exports to China; the Malaysian government has undertaken to employ RFID technology to thwart counterfeiting by micro-chipping nests with details about harvesting, packaging and transport.

The nests were formerly harvested from caves, principally the enormous limestone caves at Gomantong and Niah in Borneo. With the escalation in demand these sources have been supplanted since the late 1990s by purpose-built nesting houses, usually reinforced concrete structures following the design of the Southeast Asian shop-house (“rumah toko”/”ruko”). These nesting houses are normally found in urban areas near the sea, since the birds have a propensity to flock in such places. This has become an extraordinary industry, mainly based on a series of towns in the Indonesian Province of North Sumatra, which have been completely transformed by the activity. From there the nests are mostly exported to the markets in Hong Kong, which has become the centre of the world trade, though most of the final consumers are from mainland China. It has been estimated that the products now account for 0.5% of the Indonesian GDP, equivalent to about a quarter of the country’s fishing industry.”

So back to my story; these guys are harvesting nests. The spotter is watching the nests fall from the ceiling where a guy is working to scrap them from the cave wall. The others are gathering them when they hit the ground. Now, this is no small cave, the mouth of the cave is easily 50 feet tall and at least 400 feet wide. The cave opens inside another 100 feet higher and another 200 feet wider. The floor is covered with a thick layer of sludge that looks a little like mud, but I know it is guano.

I had hoped to stay in the cave long enough to see the swiftlets return and the bats leave. It is hot, humid and we are tired. As much as I would like to see two swarms of different species intermingle in the evening sky, I can’t convince LaDawna to stay any longer. I have a brilliant idea that I can buy one of the nests from the ‘hunters’ and keep it as a memento. I strike up a conversation with the hunters and learn that they will make about 1200 ringgit ($400 USD) for a kilogram of bird’s nests. They will sell me one small nest for 20 ringgit. I buy one.

The bird nest is small, it is covered in feathers, and it looks like nothing I would even consider eating. What was I thinking? Guess that it is another one of those things I will take off the list of things to eat. Guess that the rest of you can decide whether you will eat bird nest soup. I have had my last one.

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