By Benjamin Cost
It can be all too easy to stick to your culinary comfort zone in Shanghai, be it KFC or gōngbǎo jīdīng. As a challenge to break these habits and avoid the rut, every few weeks Shanghaiist will explore one of the more intriguing options out of China’s endless array of curious cookery. Although bizarre to most Western palates, these oft-avoided edibles usually boast unique medicinal properties, nutritional benefits, and intriguing culinary histories. We’ll explore for you where they came from and where you can sample these rare eats for yourselves.
BIRD’S NEST (燕窝, yàn wō)
Regions of use: China, Southeast Asia
Tasted at: Yongfu Hui (雍褔会) // 200 Yongfu Road, near Hunan Road (永福路200号, 近湖南路) // Closest Metro Stop: Shanghai Library (上海图书馆) Line 10, dial 5466 2727 for reservation
Once dubbed the “the caviar of the East,” bird’s nest represents the cream of the Chinese culinary crop, which at its finest quality, fetches more than gold per ounce. You might be surprised, however, that this sacred substance is essentially the dried spittle of a cave-dwelling swift (genus Collocalia or Aerodramus), which weaves the spit into nests.
Before you go on wondering how many types of animal spit a Chinese person tried before deciding cave-swift regurgitate was the “one,” take a gander at bird’s nest’s widely disputed origins.
The legend goes that the great Zheng He, admiral of the Chinese treasure ship armada in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), became stranded on a South East Asian island with little food and water. With starvation looming, he and his men harvested and cooked the ovular nests they had seen attached to the island’s cliffs, even though they feared that these seemingly flimsy structures would offer little sustenance.
To their amazement, the nests both nourished and imbued the sailors with incredible energy, prompting them to send some to the emperor as a gift, thereby introducing bird’s nest to China.
If the story proves true, bird’s nest would be a fairly recent delicacy in the scheme of the Chinese culinary timeline. But other sources trace it back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), where the celestial spittle was an imperial food reserved for the emperor and his royal subjects.
Still more conflicting scholarship claims that Chinese weren’t the first to eat bird’s nest, but rather adopted the practice from the island natives who had consumed it for ages prior to Chinese arrival on the islands.
Regardless of which scholars are full of “bird-spit” and which are not, bird’s nest origins have indeed been mythologized to a biblical degree in many instances (something that can’t be said for most bodily secretions). However, unlike the fountain of youth or the holy grail, bird’s nest’s rejuvenation and healing powers are largely based in fact.
Ming dynasty scholars tested bird’s nest extensively for hundreds of years before concluding that it was a restorative medicine capable of treating a variety of ailments from gastric ulcers to post-stage tuberculosis.
These findings not only hold accurate today, but bird’s nest turns out to be even more miraculous than once thought. Research conducted by Professor Y.C. Kong of the Chinese University of Hong Kong reveals that bird’s nest contains a hormone that promotes cell division and regeneration, bolsters the immune system, and replenishes energy. Deemed particularly beneficial to women, bird’s nest keeps the body nourished during pregnancy, and smoothes out the skin, helping maintain a youthful appearance.
Venturing inside a bird’s nest cave
Bird’s nest is collected from limestone cliffs and caves throughout South East Asia, with Indonesia supplying 80% of the trade. But there’s no more authentic and up-close bird’s nest experience than touring Gomantong Cave (yes, the one from Planet Earth) in the primeval jungle of Sabah, Borneo.
A far cry from the immaculate white tablecloths and China bowls of a bird’s nest restaurant, the actual bird’s nest site is what many would consider hell on earth. You hike through dense brush and soaring trees, all the while wading through humidity thicker than in a Japanese bath-house perched on a volcano rim, until you reach the gaping Gomantong cave.
Upon first trudging into the cavern, a blast of acrid barnyard-meets-Porta-Potty scent funnels up your nose, and you turn your head to the source – the Mount Everest of guano piles, which occupies the center of the bird’s nest lair. If there’s a heart of the jungle, this is the bowels.
Thanking the fates there’s a boardwalk, you creep further inside the virtually lightless cave and notice that the dung mountain churns with myriad red cockroaches, centipedes, and other assorted vermin. Everything eats everything here. Microorganisms ingest guano, bugs eat microorganisms, cave-swifts and bats dive-bomb bugs, and when swift chicks and baby bats topple into the guano, they are picked clean by the writhing critter carpet.
Overcome with the prickles, you only then realize that that constant pattering on your back isn’t rain but smelly payloads from the swarm of over 2 million combined swifts and bats that reside there. It’s in this literal shit-storm where twice a year, workers scale ladders up to 90 m long and collect hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bird’s nest.
Workers sustainably harvest two main types of bird’s nest here: white nests, which are made up of pure swift saliva and sell for around 2,000 USD per kilo, and the less quality black nests which are worth substantially less because they consist of twigs, feathers and moss – organic “cutting agents” the swift sometimes uses to reinforce the nest in addition to spit.
A swiftlet rescued from the boardwalk by the author
A third, rarer type called “bloody bird’s nest” because it’s dyed red by bloody swift regurgitate, can go for approximately 10,000 USD per kilo!
Beginning to feel the first pangs of the culinary equivalent of gold fever, we immediately started researching the best places to get a bowl of this edible treasure.
A bowl of bird’s nest soup
Most bird’s nest spots you’ll encounter in Shanghai are Cantonese, and many of the more popular ones like Hang Yuen Hin are offshoots of famous Hong Kong restaurants. Fortunately, we discovered Yongfu Hui, a venue that specializes in both big-name Cantonese dishes like shark’s fin and bird’s nest soup and Shanghainese specialties like sea cucumber.
Yongfu Hui’s bird’s nest soup options include a bird’s nest and purple yam combo (380RMB), double-boiled bird’s nest with papaya (680RMB), and braised bird’s nest with hairy crab roe (980RMB). Not wanting to explain why we couldn’t come up with next month’s electricity bill, we chose the cheapest option. But luckily, the price discrepancy between soups depends more on the complementing ingredients and bird’s nest portion size than the quality of the nest.
However, the portion size came back to bite us when the waitress arrived bearing our high-end swift-spit, upon which we were about inform the waitress that we already had plenty of tea, before realizing that the “cup” she was holding was actually our bowl of soup. We peered inside the cup/bowl to witness a tangle of measly translucent shreds submerged in viscous yam stock – barely a meal for the bird’s nest’s tiny tittering creator let alone us.
After spooning up every last strand of dried bird dribble (which was about two spoonfuls worth), and all the yam soup, we felt a bit underwhelmed. The bird’s nest amounted to tiny gelatinous noodles with a slight chew, while the yam stock reminded us of thick pea soup laden with honey. Heavy-hearted and light-walleted, we shambled out of the restaurant.
There’s no point in bellyaching too much over bird’s nest’s exorbitant price for with any top delicacy from caviar to truffles, there are no discount versions (and if there are, you wouldn’t want to go near them).
Still, after consuming a food as mythicized and perhaps as expensive as an ancient artifact only to discover that it’s bland, slightly chewy, and served in infinitesimally small portions, your inner-gastronome dies a little.
Nonetheless, bird’s nest remains an enduring component of Chinese cuisine, and one of the few foods whose historically-hyped healing powers hold true today. Just don’t eat bird’s nest on a regular basis, unless maybe you’re a pregnant woman with bad skin, low energy, post-stage tuberculosis, gastric ulcers, and RMB stacks as high as the Gomantong cave dung pile.
Last time on Off the Beaten Palate: Snake
See a complete list of our Off the Beaten Palate series here.