Bird's Nest - A Luxury Ingredient

Bird's Nest - A luxury Ingredient

Reserved for special occasions, bird's nest may be served in a clear consomme savory soup with minced chicken or ham and quail eggs, or a sweet soup with rock sugar. These bird's nest are not made from twigs and straw but are the dried spittle of cave-dwelling swifts, a breed of swallows found mainly along the coast of southern China and South East Asia, and inland where nature provides the requisite caves. Their gelatinous saliva contains predigested seaweed and adheres the nests to the cave walls. The collecting of these nests is a precarious business and, in addition to the rarity of the commodity, must contribute to its great expense.

'Black' nests and 'white' nests are made by different species of swift, which usually occupy different caves. In managed wildlife areas there are strict rules about when collection of nests would take place. A first collection is when the swifts have made their nests and before they have laid their eggs, This means they have to set about making more nests. The second collection is allowed after the swiftlets have hatched and flown away. Twice a year over a period of two weeks each time, workers risk life and limb, climbing flexible rattan ladders dangling from the ceiling of the caves, then inch along bamboo ladders to gather nests adhering to the roof which can be as much as 60 meters (200 feet) above the floor.

The 'white' nest, cleanest and most entire (cup shape), are most sought after, 'black' nest (peppered with twigs, feathers, grass and moss), are considered inferior, and require lots of cleaning. Steer clear of pre-cleaned nests that have a granular look. These are considered quite inferior by serious cooks. Expect to pay a premium price (hundreds of dollars) for clean, whole nests. You may also come across bird's nest in clean, curved fragments (pieces of nesting) called 'dragon's teeth' (loong nga).

If you're determined to make your own bird's nest soup, you'll want to know how to clean it. Even though the nests may look relatively clean, there is a bit of bother involved in preparing them for cooking. Here is one method. First, soak the dried nest in 2 liters of cold water over night. Drain and rub a teaspoon of peanut oil over the nest. Cover with more water, and loosened feathers should float to the top. Repeat as necessary until no more fine feathers float free.

The attraction of bird's nest is its reputed tonic value (which is why it is part of any traditional Chinese banquet) and an honor to serve your guests such a rare and expensive commodity. If you're not hell-bent on eating actual bird's nest, a less costly version is mock bird's nest soup. This uses fish maw and strands of agar-agar or white fungus as a substitute, as the textures are quite similar.

Start with a rich, well-flavored chicken stock and add soaked and shredded fish maw or soaked agar-agar strips or soaked white fungus, with the tough portions trimmed away. Bring to a simmer, then stir in finely minced chicken breast meat and a small amount of finely chopped ham. Remove from heat as soon as it is heated through and serve garnished with boiled and halved pigeon or quail eggs.

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