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
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
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.