It is one of the most coveted delicacies in all of Asia, commonly referred to as the “caviar of the East”. Its gelatinous texture is derived from the entirely saliva based, swift bird’s nest from which it is made. Due to its rarity, a single bowl of it can cost upwards of US $100.
Bird’s nest soup has been a part of Asian culture for at least 1,500 years. Swift birds that live throughout southern Asia construct the nests that are used in making it. Typically, they build their nests on high walls of massive limestone caves, like those in Gomantong, Niah and Borneo. The male bird works tirelessly over a period of 35 days during breeding season to build the nest. Their glue-like saliva is woven to create small cup-sized homes. Through years of experience, harvesters who climb these dangerous cave walls to retrieve the nests separate them into different categories. “White” nests are the purest because they lack feathers and other foreign objects. “Yellow or “black” nest are lesser varieties, but harvested nonetheless. Regardless of their purity nests are available in limited quantities, explaining why bird’s nest soup is so expensive and highly coveted. Furthermore, the soup is said to have potent nutritional and medicinal value, and folklore suggests that the swift bird’s saliva is the key to eternal life.
A significant part of the reason bird’s nest soup is so highly valued can be attributed to ancient Chinese aristocracy.
Emperor’s Exotic Taste
To this day, research has been unable to validate whether bird’s nest soup can increase libido, improve skin health, resolve respiratory problems or prolong life. But it is for these reasons, among others, that Chinese aristocrats thousands of years ago were so enamored with the delicacy.
Nest were first picked and traded in China around 600 A.D., during the T’ang Dynasty. It was during that time that the private chef of Emperor Yan Jian was at his wits end trying to satisfy the demanding palette of his Emperor. In particular, he had a fancy for hot soups with tangy broths. The chef, fearing that if he did not satisfy the Emperor would find himself the victim of a nasty beheading, did extensive research and discovered a new delicacy being imported from Borneo – bird’s nests. He prepared the soup with the nest and upon watching the Emperor take the first sip, was mortified to learn that the he thought it was ordinary and bland. Threatening the chef with violence, he quickly spoke up and made it clear that what the Emperor had just eaten was special, rare and exotic. It was also believed to give those who consumed it an extended life. Upon hearing this, the Emperor decided it was a dish fit for his high level of nobility and commended the chef on his fine work.
At no time in history has harvesting the bird’s nests from their high locales been an easy task. The brave souls who dare to retrieve them are truly amazing.
The Gomantong Caves in the state of Sabah, Malaysia, are intricate limestone dwellings of the swift birds and the epicenter of the bird’s nest industry. Harvesting the nests is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.
Locals who are licensed and trained bird’s nest collectors must climb to the top of the caves using only bamboo ladders, ropes and poles. These are basically rudimentary tools and there are no significant safety measures in place. Once they have reached the top, they use a pronged tool to loosen the nests. They must then collect the nest and bring them down. Every time they go up, there is a good chance that they could get injured or even die. In fact, deaths are a fairly regular occurrence. The entire bird’s nest industry is quite rough around the edges, and some say a dark place to work. Bird’s nest harvesting companies are forced to pay high fees to the government in order to operate. The fees encourage them to protect their businesses, sometimes with brutal force. Some use armed security guards and even private armies to protect their interests. They have been known to bribe authorities and shoot at anyone they suspect might be an intruder at their caves. This type of behavior has put a serious damper on tourist activity, especially by rock climbers who wish to scale the limestone walls.
As one cave official in the area has put it, “Anyone who finds themselves in the vicinity of the caves, and is thought to be a threat to the bird’s nest industry, will be extremely sorry that they ever came.”
While the harvesting of bird’s nests for soup has historical significance and provides a certain degree of economic stimulus, it is ultimately a wholly unsustainable industry that does far more harm than good. The strong desire for bird’s nest soup in various parts of the world puts the swift bird species at a significant disadvantage for survival. While it is claimed that some efforts are made to make sure bird’s nests are taken during times when hatching is not occurring, it is known that in desperate times, they have been taken long before babies have had time to hatch or develop. In recent years, bird populations in the caves have significantly declined, both because of over-harvesting and because the birds have learned to fear the caves.
Ultimately, for every bird’s nest that is taken, there is chance that the birds that have lost their home will not survive. And any reasonable thinker knows that no culinary delicacy is worth the loss of yet another species from our planet.