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Bird’s Nest Soup : An Expensive and Exquisite Delicacy

I like to share information that makes life more joyful and meaningful. My main interests are health and general wellness in body and mind.


Bird’s Nest Soup Not From Twigs, Leaves And Straws

For the uninitiated, bird’s nest is definitely made from twigs, leaves and straws. So taking bird’s nest soup means eating twigs, leaves and straws! Yes? Not so. I think it is safe to assume that all birds’ nests are made from external sources, except a species of those little and unattractive black birds, called the swiftlets. These little swiftlets, hardly more than 10 cm (4 inches) long, weighs only 14 grams. They are mostly found in Southeast Asia, notably Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. They build their nests entirely with their sticky saliva. These swiflets use their saliva to create straw-like strands forming into “leaf-shape” pieces which make up the nest. Bird’s nest soup is made from this gelatinous swiflets’ nests, definitely not from twigs, leaves and straws. In this article, “bird’s nest” will mean the swiftlet’s nest that is used for making “bird’s nest soup”.

Swiftlets’ Nests Are A Very Expensive Commodity

Bird’s nests are a very expensive gourmet delicacy. I can safely say that bird’s nest is the most expensive Chinese “medicinal” delicacy. The other item that can really match the bird’s nest is ginseng. Both these precious items are worth their weight in gold. Both also share the mysteries in their purported medicinal excellence, second to none. Both are regarded as elixirs of health, promoting blood circulation and purification, strengthening immune system and a panacea for many illnesses. Bird’s nest soup is believed to be especially good for the complexion. And surprisingly, both these very expensive items lack concrete scientific proof of their superlative health benefits. However, based on logical “law of numbers”, millions of people around the world could not be wrong in this belief. Or could they?

Swiftlets Flying Over My House


A Single Swiftlet Hovering Over My House


Harvesting Of Bird’s Nests

Bird’s nests have been harvested by the Chinese for centuries. Traditionally, bird’s nests are harvested from the caves where the swiftlets make their nests high up near the cave’s ceiling. It is a very perilous occupation, where the harvesters have to scale the slippery walls of the caves to get to the nests. The caves are mainly found in Borneo and Thailand. However, with increased in international demand, bird’s nest harvesting has gone commercial and very high tech. Specially constructed structures are built to simulate the cave environment with broadcasting of recorded swiftlets’ chirping sound to attract the swiflets to make their nests. Many ordinary shophouses have also been turned into swiftlets’ havenly caves. The main importer of bird’s nests is China. The main exporters are Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. Bird’s nest is very big business. Majority of the bird’s nests is harvested from the commercially created swiftlets buildings, or simply called “bird houses”. Swiftlets are everywhere in these countries, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. I can see swiftlets every day flying above my house. Take a look at the photos on the right which I took from my house.

Cleaned Bird's Nests

Two types. Left shows the finer grain. Right shows the streaky type.

Two types. Left shows the finer grain. Right shows the streaky type.

The Streaky Type Bird's Nests


The Finer Type Bird's Nests


Processing Of Bird’s Nests

Processing of bird’s nests is a very tedious manual exercise. It is actually a very simple process of thoroughly cleaning them with water and plucking off the numerous fine feathers. The raw bird’s nests come with very fine feathers sticking on them. These fine feathers are from the baby swiftlets and from the male swiftlets which built the nests. The shape of each piece of bird’s nest is difficult to describe in words. The nearest description would be a form of shallow “cup-like” pieces or curved leaves of about 8 cm (3 inches) each. Best solution is to take a look at my photos here. These pieces of bird’s nests are stuck on the cave ceilings or on the ceilings of the commercially created swiftlets’ buildings. Each piece is made from interwoven strands of the swiflet’s special saliva which gel to form the “cup-like” nest. The traditional harvesters will have to climb the walls of the caves to reach the top ceilings and pluck the pieces with special poles. Now, the lucky commercial harvesters would just need a ladder to reach the ceiling of the building and pluck the nests by hand.

The harvested pieces are soaked in water and the numerous fine feathers are very tediously and patiently removed manually by using tweezers. The cleaned pieces are then dried and packed, ready for export. The commercially harvested and cleaned bird’s nests are very consistent in size and shape, each measuring about 8 cm (3 inches) and weighing hardly 1 gram.

I remember when I was a young boy, my mother would prepare bird’s nest soup for me. The bird’s nest she used was very different from the standard shape. They were in small crumbs and tasted much better than the standard pieces, with more crunch. Nowadays you cannot get this type of bird’s nest. Come to think of it, I suspect those little bits and pieces were plucked from the crevices of the cave, after the main pieces were removed. Those days, those bird’s nest crumbs were cheaper than the standard pieces. That’s why I got to taste the bird’s nest soup delicacy. LOL!

Cooking Bird’s Nest Soup

The most common traditional preparation for the bird’s nest is in the form of a clear soup taken cold or hot. Other preparations are in the form of jelly, with chicken soup, with rice porridge, and even in desserts. You can also buy ready bottled bird’s nest drink as well.

Let me share with you, the way to prepare the traditional bird’s nest soup. The thoroughly cleaned bird’s nest is “double-boiled” or steamed. Water is added to the pieces of bird’s nest with a piece of rock sugar to taste. Quite often, to make it more exquisite and health enhancing, traditional Chinese herbal condiments such as ginseng and dates are added to it.

For “double-boil”, water is added to the bird’s nest in the container pot together with the rock sugar. For steaming method, the ingredients are placed in a bowl covered with a lid, and put to steam. Traditionally, my mother used to slowly “double-boiled” for at least an hour or so. However, the latest bird’s nests seem to be much softer, and only require cooking time of 20 to 30 minutes.

My Latest Bird’s Nest Soup

Recently, I had the good fortune to be presented with a surprised gift of four pieces of bird’s nest by my internet friend when we met in my hometown. I have written a post about this surprised gift in my private blog. Below are the photos taken by me when I was preparing the bird’s nest soup.

By the way, this is my bird's nest soup recipe.


1 piece bird's nest

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A small bowl of water

4 red dates and a few pieces of ginseng slices (optional)

A small piece of rock sugar


Soak the bird's nest and dates in a separate bowl of water for 30 minutes.

Put the rock sugar and ginseng slices in another bowl of water.

Transfer the bird's nest and dates, after draining out the water, to the bowl of water containing the rock sugar.

Cover the bowl and put to steam for 30 minutes.

(Note: The photos show 2 pieces of bird's nest. I was being generous to myself!)

Bird's Nest Soup Ingredients

Bird's nest, dates and rock sugar.

Bird's nest, dates and rock sugar.

Bird's Nest And Red Dates Soaked In Water

Soaked in water for 15 minutes

Soaked in water for 15 minutes

Ingredients Ready For Steaming

Ready for steaming in the steamer.

Ready for steaming in the steamer.

Steaming In Progress

Steaming for 30 minutes.

Steaming for 30 minutes.

My Pure Exquisite Bird's Nest Soup

What a dish!

What a dish!

That's Me On Cloud Nine!

What can I say?!

What can I say?!

Harvesting Bird's Nests In Thailand

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Justin Choo (author) from Malaysia on December 14, 2013:

Good afternoon Jackie Lynnley,

All birds build their nests for use only once. The next season, they will start build their new nests again.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on December 14, 2013:

So very interesting, thank you so much for sharing that. Perhaps the nests your mom cooked were older so tougher? I mean assuming they reused their nests maybe a few years, or did they always build new ones? ^+

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