3 November 2011

Birds' nest soup - yummy! (not)

I dug an enormous hole for myself on the way to Melaka on Saturday when I said to the kids:  "Your challenge for this weekend is to eat something that you've not tried before".  Little did I know that, just a couple of doors down from the hotel where we spent the night, was a newly opened building, dedicated to the history, making and selling of birds' nests.  Not just any old nests, but the edible kind, the ones that are considered a delicacy by the Chinese.  The ones that they believe have great health-boosting properties, and so are prepared to pay an absolute fortune for.  Well, yes, they have been proved to be high in protein - that's so the tiny fledgelings can eat them and grow big and strong so they won't be next-bound for too long.  But frankly if I was going for something high in protein, I think I'd much sooner eat a nice juicy steak!

So anyway, these nests are made by swiftlets. Legend has it that a great Chinese sea captain, forced with his crew to seek refuge from a fierce storm in a cave, decided to try eating them when they ran low on rations.  And he discovered that after a couple of days, the crew were all much healtheir and stronger.  And thus the appetite for these tiny little nests, made of bird spit, was born.  These days a lot of the nests are farmed in purpose-built buildings.  It's a lot safer and easier than collecting them from cave ceilings hundreds of feet high.  The building we saw had become home to the swiftlets when it was abandoned, and the new owner, a birds' nest magnate, paid a fortune for the run down house simply because the birds and their nests were worth so much.  Here's what some of the nests look like, before processing:

And this is how they look after processing, when being sold in the shops:

That big round box on the top had a price tag of 5,878 RM - that's roughly GBP1,175!

Before touring the house, we ordered a bowl of soup between us, so we could at least say we had tried it.  At 50RM (10 pounds) for the bowl, it was apparently a bargain.  We had seen the nests in the rafters, plus a few birds, and we had seen Malaysian workers painstakingly picking out all the bits of feather and other, um, waste materials.  Now it was time to taste the cooked results.

The soup came with a choice of raw cane sugar or honey sugar, we were recommended to use the honey sugar.  To be honest, it was fairly innocuous.  It smelt a little like egg white, tasted of honey sugar (!) and the stringy bits were just gelatinous, a bit like tapioca and semolina, except in longish pieces rather than little balls.  But knowing what it was made all the difference to our "enjoyment" of it - it was hard not to feel ill, and it would be fair to say that none of us has an overwhelming desire to go back for more.

We had a great time in Malaka - I'll be back with some more stories and photos soon.


Sarah said...

How interesting: all these years I've never dreamt the soup contained real birds nests! But what happens to swifts and swiftlings in farmed nest scenario? Hope they aren't Turfed out before they fledge....

Hilary said...

I suspect that in the less ethical farms the fledgelings might be turfed out early, but at this one they had ISO certificates for operating in a sustainable way, ie only harvesting the nests once the fledgelings had left. Which makes more sense in the long run anyway - the more fledglings survive, the more there are to make even more nests!

Wendy@The Omnivorous Bear said...

Good girl, Hils....taking one for the team! Now I know what bird's nest soup is like, I don't have to try it! That's a great post!
(past.... Can you try sea cucumber for me? Or maybe chicken feet?)

Hilary said...

Ummm, let me think about that Wendy.... No! Definitely not to both!