Edible Swiftlet’s Nests: a Chinese Delicacy

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Edible swiftlet’s nests or edible bird’s nests . Indian and other swiftlets use mucus (saliva) to create the nests. People then harvest the edible swiftlet’s nests for human consumption. Although not really correct, many people also call it ‘swallow’s nest’.

Edible nest or the nest of the swiftlet is appreciated by gourmets all over the world. The nests are whitish, translucent and sometimes yellow-tinged.

Over the years, the demand for edible bird’s nests has increased considerably. Even to such an extent that they sell for now for 1,200 euro per kilo. Just as a comparison, the valuable sturgeon caviar sometimes sell for around 9,000 euros per kilo.

The Chinese love the edible swiflet’s nests and use them after dissolving them into a kind of whitish jelly – as a base for desserts, soups or drinks.

As a result, more and more swallow farms have been set up, especially in Burma. They build sheds from concrete to accommodate the swiflets to build their nests. They then sell the nests for export to especially China.

The edible bird nest’s market is worth around 5 billion Euro a year. Which is good for Burma’s farmers, whose country has become more open to exports since the junta stepped down in 2011.

Edible Swiftlet's Nests
Box with Edible Nests of a Swiftlet

The Chinese particularly prize them due to their rarity and high nutritional value in nutrients such as protein, and rich flavor. They have been using nests in Chinese cooking for over 400 years.

Edible swiftlet’s nests are among the most expensive foods in the world. One kilogram of these fresh nests sells in Hong Kong for between $3,000 and $5,000. This depends on the grading. Grading of a bird’s nest is based on the type of bird, the shape and color of the swiftlet’s nest.

It is usually white or yellowish in color. But there is also a red version that the Chinese call “blood” nest. The Chinese believe that it promotes good health. And that it is especially beneficial for the skin.

Bird’s nest soup and Chinese cuisine

The best-known use of edible birds nest is bird’s nest soup, a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. When dissolved in water, the birds’ nests have a favored gelatinous texture utilized in soup or sweet soup (tong sui). The Chinese mostly refer to it as 燕窩 (yànwō), unless references are made to the savory or sweet soup in Chinese cuisine.

The Ch’ing dynasty manual of gastronomy, the Suiyuan shidan, regarded the bird’s nest as a delicate ingredient. Flavoring or cooking with anything overpowering or oily not allowed. . While it is rare and expensive, it must be served in relatively large quantities; otherwise the people eating it cannot fully experience and enjoy its texture.

Edible Swiftlet's Nests
Edible swiflet’s nests are made of saliva

In addition to their use in soup, the Chinese use edible bird’s nests as an ingredient in other dishes. They cook it with rice to produce bird’s nest congee or bird’s nest boiled rice. Or they add it to egg tarts and other desserts. They also make a bird’s nest jelly by placing the bird’s nest in a ceramic container with minimal water and sugar (or salt) before double steaming.

Source: Wikipedia

Production of edible swiftlet’s nests

They live mainly in Indonesia, which produces 70% of the nests found on the market. Borneo is one of the major production sites, because the subspecies that nests in the island’s caves makes a nest that is entirely edible, pretty to look at and of high quality.

Cave with swiftets’ nests in Thailand

So-called ‘scouts’ collect the nests. They use acrobatics and make spectacular descents into caves in seaside cliffs. They are paid well for the risks they are taking here. It is also one of the reasons why the nests are so expensive.

Every three months, the bird rebuilds a nest. And every three months, it’s torn out by the scouts. This has had consequences for the swiftlet population, which is falling. So people are trying to expand breeding in other countries than Burma, like Thailand and Indonesia.

Once harvested, the precious harvest must be cleaned up. They soak the nests in lukewarm water to remove feathers and other impurities. They then dry them. It looks a bit like rice noodles. When boiling it, it will become translucent.

Health benefits of edible swiftlet’s nests

It is a dish reserved for the elite in China since the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Emperors used it for a whole host of famous virtues. Apparently, the edible swiftelt’s nest is the key to a happy life without any health problems.

It slows down aging, is good for the skin, saves smokers from coughing, fights cancer cells and eye diseases, but also asthma and fever in general. What is true here is that the mucus is a great source of amino acids. Some argue that these are active molecules such as azidothymidine (AZT), which has been used since the 1980s in the treatment of HIV infection, or hexadecane acid (HAD), which, by oversimplifying, is a kind of dope for the respiratory system.

Swiftlet nests

Today, the nest is cheaper than before, it has become more affordable for a greater audience. But it remains an exceptional pleasure.

We eat it in compote, soup, or in a sweet pie, So what does it taste like? Well,it’s absolutely tasteless. What the edible swiftlet’s nest does, though, is very well fix the aromas of the ingredients that go with it.

So the success is mainly explained by the importance of healing medicines in China. Medicine and food are closely linked. The virtues of food are more important than its aroma.

And some will tell you that this is the height of luxury: paying a fortune for something that has no taste, that’s the ultimate class.


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