The Caviar of Asia
Caviar is a world renown delicacy which many of us are prepared to pay a substantial amount of money to enjoy its salty flavors. Essentially Caviar consists of salt-cured masses of eggs contained in the ovaries of a female fish. An unusual idea but one that Westerners have adapted as a symbol of cultural refinement and luxury. Including Caviar at your dinner party brings a sense of sophistication and makes a statement of cultured wealth. Asia’s Caviar is the edible bird’s nest. The most common consumption of the bird’s nest is Bird’s Nest Soup; a soup made of edible-nest swiftlets using solidified saliva, harvested for human consumption.
To Westerners the idea of eating a bird’s nest covered of a bird’s dried-up saliva sounds outrageous, but is it really, when we are prepared to eat fish eggs and place them on a pedestal? With the growth of technology and internet, the world is becoming a smaller place. More people are travelling and staying connected from all corners of the world. Inter-cultural exchanges are inevitable and the prominence of it is influencing our lives, opening our horizons and making us all a lot more receptive to change. We are embracing this inter-cultural bridge like never before. As a result, the younger population is very open to allowing what may be new in one culture, but an ancient tradition in another, to enter their lives. Bird’s nests are one good example of such inter-cultural exchange. Young professionals, in California especially, have developed a striking interest in Asia’s Caviar. It is fast becoming a signature dish amongst the mainstream cultured and well to do, in the same way that Caviar has been in the western hemisphere.
Whilst bird’s nest is a new and contemporary delicatessen in Europe and America, its history goes back hundreds if not thousands of years. The consumption of bird’s nest can be tracked back 1500 years ago in China, during the Tang Dynasty era (A.D. 618-907). It was first introduced to China’s Emperor by Chinese sailors who brought them back from the southern countries. Seeing as it was a rare commodity, only the Chinese Emperor and his court officials had the privilege of enjoying this exquisite fruit of nature and it was therefore labelled a dish of supreme delicacy. This delicatessen was introduced to the mainstream population only at the end of the Emperor’s rule. Since that time, demand grew but supply stayed limited due to its rarity, making it to this day, a supreme delicatessen for special occasions. What’s more, bird’s nests are known for their nutritional properties, an excellent health booster as well as its exquisiteness for the most refined of pallets.
What is edible bird’s nest?
Edible birds nest is created naturally by the swiftlet birds of Southeast Asia. These nests are made out of the bird’s saliva, which has dried and hardened. The swiftlet uses strands of its own saliva which harden when exposed to air, instead of twigs and other bits and pieces normally used by other species. These birds live in caves, similar to bats; their nests are actually very dangerous to harvest and intricately laborious to prepare for consumption. They also provide a long list of health benefits and are amongst the most valued items in traditional Chinese medicine. As a result, bird’s nests are one of the mostly highly priced foods on the market worldwide, as much as $4,500 per pound.
How is edible bird’s nest good for our health?
Swiftlets live in limestone caves around the Indian Ocean, in South and South East Asia, North Australia and the Pacific Islands. The nests are primarily built by the male swiftlet, who attaches the nests to the walls of the caves they live in. Removing them is not only a very arduous and dangerous job but, once removed, it can take up to one hour to clean one nest alone. Still, there is a fascination for this particular dish, in spite of the laborious efforts required and its rarity, making it one of the most expensive consumer goods on earth, because of its health benefits. It is believed that bird’s nests have high nutritional and medicinal value including anti-aging components and anti-cancer properties as well as it improves concentration and raises libido. One of the most abundant constituents of the nests is protein, which contains all of the essential amino acids. They also contain six hormones, beneficial to our health, including testosterone and estradiol and they contain carbohydrates, ash and a small quantity of healthy lipids. Research demonstrates that this natural product, derived from the saliva of swiftlets, can stimulate cell division and growth, enhance tissue growth and regeneration and it is a natural gatekeeper against influenza.
How do you eat bird’s nest?
The most common practice is to eat it as a soup. The Chinese have been eating Bird’s Nest Soup for over a1000 years. In itself the bird’s nest doesn’t really have a distinct taste. It is a rather delicate taste, very soft to the pallet and the texture of the soup is similar to that of jelly, produced by the bird’s saliva. Traditionally in China, bird’s nest soup is cooked with rock sugar and served as a sweet dessert dish. However, people do cook it without the rock sugar and instead, mix it with milk.
The cooking process is very important for such delicatessen. If boiled or microwaved, the nest will lose its delicate flavours and nutritional values. The most common way of cooking bird’s nest soup is to slowly and very gently steam the nest, after soaking it in water.
There are variations to making bird’s nest soup and the taste also varies, depending on where the nest came from. For example, nests harvested near the ocean, tend to offer a sea-salt flavour as the birds in that area eat primarily fish from the ocean.
What variations are there?
There are different grades of bird’s nest which are red, yellow and white. The varying colours depend largely on the bird’s location and diet. Some will contain more minerals and different kinds of nutrients.
White is the most sought-after and the highest quality. It is the nest that has the most nourishing ingredients that enhances skin complexion and youthfulness, and boost the immune system. It is also the nest found in the deepest part of the limestone caves and usually has been harvested before the female had time to lay her eggs, it will not have been a used home by the swiftlets.
The golden nest is recommended for both pregnant women and middle-aged women for its nourishing components and revitalizing affects.
Red is usually recommended for pregnant women, people suffering from anaemia or recovering from surgery because it contains the highest level of minerals. It helps replenish blood and calcium. These nests are usually from caves and not breading houses, which produce
the cleanest white nests. They turn red or dark colour because of the environment they are built in. Essentially what happens, is that the bird’s nest absorbs minerals from the cave walls, which then gives it this unique dark red colour.
How do we determine the quality of a bird’s nest?
It’s true to say that the whiter the nest the better quality it is, because it is in its purest form and has had less contaminants, meaning it is the purest thread of the bird’s saliva and not mixed with other natural ingredients of its environment such as twigs, feathers etc. However, it is important to take notice that, though production houses produce the whitest nests, they are not necessarily considered the best quality. Natural nests from caves are of superior quality to those built, in production houses, even if they are closer to ivory in colour in comparison to the whiteness of the production house nest. Again, these nests come in a variation of colour, especially those from their natural habitat, the caves. They can go anywhere from white to the darkest red and really the change in colour is due to the geographic location which influences the bird’s diet and the nest’s location in the cave which will expose them more or less to a variety of minerals that affect their colouring.
The bird’s nest value is determined by a quality grading system and the size of the nest. The purest quality offers the highest grading in terms of quality. What that means is that the higher the percentage of edibility of the nest once harvested the better the quality. This means that if a nest is 90% edible once harvested, it requires a minimal amount of processing to get it ready for consumption. Bird’s nests of this superior quality have thicker strands, a longer lasting aroma when cooked and are often white, gold or blood red in colour and they come from caves.
On the contrary, bird’s nest produced from production houses may be whiter in appearance, often they may have been whitened by the production house as well and the easiest way to tell them apart from the top-grade nests, is by the thickness of their strands. These nests usually have thinner strands and are not as dense in their consistency. Often you will find that when left to soak in water, they will expand much more quickly than the cave nests and the aroma is less poignant as well. Plus, when eaten, the strands dissolve whilst the strands of a top-quality cave nest tend to keep their gelatinous spaghetti-like consistency and provide a beautiful transparency which is slightly clouded in the lower tear nests.
Another factor that contributes to the value of the nest is its size. The larger the nest, the more expensive it is. The two unique colours which can outprice the usual white is when you get a rich golden yellow nest or a ruby red one, void of imperfections. Then you are talking rarity for phenomenal cash. That is the ultimate gem bird’s nest.
Nests that have 50% or less edibility once harvested fall within the second and third tier of quality. They tend to have much thinner strands and are harder to obtain in full sizes. When cooked they lose the gelatinous sensation you would get from the top tier grade and feel crispier in your mouth.
Miss Cathy founder of Ten Lei Yen confirms that it is very important to make sure you are getting the real product and at the right quality. “We import our Birds Nest directly from Indonesia, unlike our competitors that purchase from wholesalers. We have our own cleaning and processing facility so we have 100% control of our products quality,” she explains. “It is the only way for us to guarantee that we are providing our customers with the best Caviar of the east!”