Its culinary legacy dates back a millennium. The average retail price is $1,000 a pound, with some costing several times more. Its nicknames range from White Gold to the Caviar of the East, and it's even become a nickname for the Beijing National Stadium.
What am I talking about? Bird's nest, a.k.a. solidified bird spit.
Over the years, my commitment to culinary content led to eating live termites, a mezcal-soaked scorpion, sperm-filled cod testes, a large Amazonian snail, still-moving octopus tentacles and a still-beating snake heart followed by a shot of snake blood. A recent trip to Hong Kong allowed me to add to this infamous list with a bowl of bird spit. Ordering it from a street-food vendor in Kowloon might have been a more authentic experience, but I opted to see what the city's finest Chinese restaurant could do with a dish that frankly sounds awful.
More than a decade ago, Lung King Heen made history as the first Chinese restaurant in the world to receive three Michelin stars, which is the guide's highest rating. The pricey Cantonese restaurant, currently ranked No. 24 on Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list, overlooks Victoria Harbour from the fourth floor of the Four Seasons hotel, and it serves dishes like eel skin with salted egg yolk, marinated abalone with red jellyfish, double-boiled sea whelk soup with cordyceps, and braised fish maw with goose web. In other words, I needed to do some research to figure out exactly what these menu items are, and that's how I first learned about bird's nests.
"Honey, come here, I want to show you something," I told my wife after seeing the "bird's nest" search results on my computer. She approached me with a skeptical facial expression—the tone of my voice apparently hinted at an idea she knew she wouldn't like—and I proceeded to show her the menu and explain the dish.
"I don't understand," she said in subdued horror. "Do the birds just sit there and spit in a bowl?"
Actually, I didn't know. I had stopped reading at "solidified saliva" from cave-dwelling birds. If I was going to sell this idea to my wife, I needed to do more research.
Swiftlets, a swallow-like Southeast Asian bird that dwells in elevated caves (like the one in the image on the right), take about a month during breeding season to build a nest with saliva excreted from glands inside their beaks. Once the saliva hardens and dries, the bird covers the nest with a blanket of feathers. Sourcing bird nests in nature is time consuming and dangerous as scouts must often climb several hundred feet to reach what are typically dark caves. Once a fully formed bird's nest is found, it requires a meticulous cleaning process to remove the feathers and other potential contaminants. The vast majority of the nests are shipped to China, which is the largest market for what has become a multi-billion dollar industry.
"You're crazy," my wife said in response to my more-detailed description of the dish. Raised in Colombia, she has eaten some pretty questionable food (grilled cow udder, anyone?), but when it comes to bird spit, she said, "You're on your own for this one."
At the restaurant, we largely played it safe by ordering crispy suckling pig, wok-fried prawns, and fried rice with shrimp, barbecued pork and roasted goose. The menu had an entire page of bird's nest options, though, so I needed a recommendation for this choice.
"Which bird's nest would you recommend?" I asked the server. Since some of the options topped $100, I added, "I would prefer one of the less expensive options."
"Do you know what a bird's nest is?" the server asked.
"It's bird spit, right?"
"Yes, served in a soup," he replied. "It's a delicacy."
"My mother loves bird's nest," the server added.
"She likes the taste?" I asked.
"She says it's great for her skin," he explained. "That's why a lot of people eat it."
Herein lies the reason why bird spit is so popular. The Chinese view the protein-rich saliva as a medicinal food that supposedly improves complexions, slows aging, increases sex drive and protects against lung disease. Peer-reviewed scientific data is limited, but some studies do suggest it might promote cell proliferation, antioxidation, bone strength and thickness and a resistance to influenza. In 2018, Chinese researchers even argued that eating birds' nests during pregnancy and breastfeeding "can improve the spatial learning performances in the offspring."
What did the bird's nest do for me? It kinda made me gag.
Served as the third course, the piss-yellow pottage resembled a Lipton chicken noodle soup gone seriously awry. Like jumping into an unheated pool, I dove into the bird's nest soup and attempted to adjust to the new flavors hitting my palate simultaneously. The crab and chicken did help mask the unusual flavor of the bird spit, but the nest gave the soup a gelatinous consistency that one might compare to warm cough syrup. Still, I just forked out $70 bucks for a bowl of bird spit, so I was hardly going to stop eating after a few thick spoonfuls.
"Okay, I'll try it," my wife said after a few minutes.
"Really?" I said surprised. "Did I inspire you?"
"Actually, it was the server," she replied with a smile. "He said his mother eats it to improve her skin."
Clearly inspired by the potential beauty benefits, my wife gave it a try and remarked, "It's not that bad. It reminds me of something we eat back in Colombia."
With her help, we finished about two-thirds of the bowl before finally calling it quits.
So just how popular have bird's nests become? Well, the high-priced product now has a foothold in the U.S. market with online shops like Golden Nest and Hello Nest, and it's even made it into restaurants like Mott 32 in Las Vegas. If looking to give it a go, however, make sure it's at a reputable vendor. As odd as it might sound, Swiftlet saliva is such a hot commodity that fraud is rampant, and no one wants to fork out a small fortune for fake bird spit.
Photo credits: City Foodsters/Flickr, Jim Winstead/Flickr and David Jenison.