Bird's Nest Soup

A Famous But Controversial Chinese Dish

Bird's nest
Arun Roisri - Getty Image

Bird’s nest soup is one of the most famous but also most controversial delicacies in Chinese cuisine. Many people are willing to spend small fortunes on this soup as they believe eating it will help them maintain their youth as well as have a long healthy life and a strong body.

The special ingredient in the soup is the "nutri-collagen," which helps in collagen formation. But the truth is if you want bird’s nest soup to work its magic you will have to consume this soup regularly—eating just a small bowl of bird’s nest soup won’t bring your youth back or give you a long life; some bird’s nest soup promoters say a regular diet of 10 grams a day is necessary in order to reap the benefits.

Whereas many dishes with interesting names are so called because of their appearance, like bird's nest cookies made with chow mein noodles and melted chocolate, bird's nest soup is a literal recipe title—the soup is made from a real bird's nest. But if you are thinking of the charming structures made by bluebirds consisting of sticks and straw, think again.

An Edible Bird's Nest

The bird's nests used for this soup are not simply found in trees, abandoned by their owners. These edible bird’s nests belong to the swiftlet, a small bird usually found in Southeast Asia. The swiftlet lives in dark caves and, similar to bats, use echolocation to move around. Instead of twigs and straw, however, the swiftlet makes its nest from strands of its own gummy saliva, which is produced by the glands under the tongue. The nest then hardens when exposed to air.

The structure is quite impressive, a tightly woven hammock-like formation, made of strong threads that can be white, yellow, or red. The nest is secured to the rock wall in the cave, and therefore can be challenging to remove. Some of the processes of harvesting nests are extremely dangerous. The nests are usually located at the top of caves and the nest collector has to use a very narrow, shaky, and long wooden ladder which they climb on top of to reach the nests. Because this is so dangerous, many nest collectors have lost their lives.

Surrounded by Controversy

In addition to people spending a lot of money on bird's nest soup, there is another aspect of this delicacy that causes controversy: Swiftlets are an endangered species, and the more nests that are consumed, the closer swiftlets head toward extinction. Swiftlets are especially endangered in areas like the Andaman and Nicobar Islands; there are places like Dazhou Island and Hainan where the Chinese government has banned harvesting bird’s nests as swiftlets are nearly extinct in these locations.

In many places, such as Malaysia and Thailand, people have started farming the swiftlet’s to collect their nests. These farms are using empty houses as swiftlet’s homes.

History of Bird's Nest Soup

This unusual soup has been a part of Chinese cuisine for generations. Chinese people began consuming bird’s nest soup during the Ming Dynasty and in some tales, it’s believed Zhen He (鄭和), who was a Chinese explorer, diplomat, and fleet admiral, was the first person in Chinese history to eat bird’s nest soup.

There are different grades of bird’s nest—red, yellow, and white. The red bird’s nest is known in Chinese as the “blood-red bird’s nest" (血燕) and is the rarest. Some people believe the red bird’s nest is made of the swiftlet's blood but that’s not true at all. The reason the bird’s nests turn “blood red” is due to the bird's diet which contains more mineral and different kinds of nutrients.

Cooking and Consuming Bird's Nest

Considering there is so much fuss over this soup, you may be surprised to learn that the bird’s nest doesn’t really have a lot of taste, and the texture is a bit like softened gelatin and jelly. Chinese people usually cook bird’s nest soup with rock sugar and serve it as a sweet dessert soup. Some people prefer to cook bird’s nest soup without rock sugar and instead mix it with some warm milk.

The cooking process is extremely critical when making bird’s nest soup. Microwave cooking or boiling on a stove will cause the nest to lose any taste it has and it will be stripped of its nutritional value. The common way to cook bird’s nest soup is to slowly and gently steam it after soaking it in water.