- Bird’s nest is a delicacy found in Chinese-speaking countries across Asia.
- It’s made from the hardened saliva of a swiftlet and can fetch up to S$3,500 ($2,600 USD) per kilogram.
- Swiftlet farms have sprung up to meet customer demand — but they’re not without controversy.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Who would have thought that a nest made out of hardened bird spit would be a delicacy, a skincare product, and a popular gift across Chinese-speaking countries in Asia?
The delicacy is called bird’s nest, and it’s made from the nest of a swiftlet. The cream-colored translucent orb of solidified saliva looks like the rib cage of a large animal or a mineralized spider web.
Edible-nest swiftlets, which can only be found in Southeast Asia and East Asia, do not use twigs for their nest; instead, they produce nests entirely from their own saliva. These nests are edible and are valued for their nutritional benefits. They also feature prominently in Lunar New Year festivities every January and February.
Today, you can find the age-old Chinese delicacy in bubble tea, in gas stations, and even at your local 7-11. It’s been known to retail for prices from S$8.50-$100 ($6-$75 USD) per bottle depending on the grade and amount of bird’s nest as well as whether other ingredients, such as collagen, ginseng, wolfberries (goji berries), are added.
An origin story steeped in myth and legend
For hundreds of years, Chinese communities across China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore have boiled and ingested these edible birds’ nests particularly at old age, when ill or pregnant, or when seeking a bit of that lively facial glow.
Even so, the origin story behind bird’s nest isn’t totally clear.
“I do not think anyone definitively knows how and why someone ever tried boiling and eating these bird’s nests,” said Justin Chiam, one of the cofounders of The Purest Co, a Singapore-based bird’s nest production company. Founded in late 2019, The Purest Co harvests, processes, cooks, and delivers birds’ nests from farms in Indonesia direct to consumers in Singapore.
One legend has it that Chinese royals, obsessed with maintaining everlasting youth, sent expeditions to different parts of the world and discovered this bird’s nest in Indonesia. Another story has it that a general, stranded on an island in Southeast Asia with his troops and only swiftlet nests around, decided to boil and eat the nests, and found his crew to have improved vigor after.
Farming swiftlet nests
Chiam and his cofounder, Stuart Ho, learned about edible bird’s nest production from Chiam’s uncle, who operates swiftlet houses in Sitiawan, Malaysia.
In the wild, swiftlet nests are found deep in caves. Swiftlet farmers have to build scaffolding to scale dark, damp walls to obtain their harvest. As demand for the delicacy grew, house nests — multi-storey, concrete, blank, windowless buildings — were built to create an ideal environment for swiftlets to breed.
In Malaysia alone, an estimated 30,000 swiftlet houses contribute US$400 million to the national economy.
Large bird nest house at the mangroves land for swiftlet swallow swift birds to make nest and breed. Partially concealed large building structure for commercial bird nest.
Peacefoo / Getty Images
Small birds at the bottom of the food chain, swiftlets seek out safety and protection from predators such as owls and eagles; they are drawn to house nests because they offer holes small enough to let the swiftlets come and go while deterring larger animals. House nests are built in areas with ample food supply for the swiftlets (such as insects) and kept dark and moist to replicate the natural environment of the cave.
Harry Mranata, Managing Director of Pristine Farm, a Singapore-based company with farms in Indonesia, told Insider farms will play baby swiftlet sounds to attract a cohort of “pioneers” to breed in their building. Over time, their friends join them, and the community grows.
Mranata said that the birds cannot be kept in captivity, and it is important for them to look for food by themselves: “We cannot feed them, only provide facilities.”
Climbing ropes and plank walk used by Birds nests harvesters in Gomantong cave in Malaysia (Borneo).
suc / Getty Images
A delicacy with a price tag
The peripatetic life of a swiftlet home is among the reasons why swiftlet nests are so expensive.
Mranata said his swiftlet houses have a lifespan of about 10-15 years in which they are financially productive. When an area develops and roads are built, swiftlets start to vacate the farm. At this point, a new farm building has to be constructed in a new area to restart the farming process.
The swiftlets in his farms in Indonesia produce nests three or four times a year in the suburbs or areas close to the city, whereas they produce nests about 10 times a year in what he calls “pristine” areas, far from traffic and urbanization. The nests are harvested by measuring their size and monitoring changes in color.
White swiftlet nests retail for S$3,500 ($2,600 USD) per kilogram, while “blood nests” — red swiftlet nests — can command up to S$10,000 ($7,400 USD) per kilogram. The red coloration is caused by minerals in the swiftlet nests interacting with the environment. Blood bird’s nest is rarely sold in restaurants or packaged in bottles; it is most commonly sold raw and as full cups and pieces for customers to boil at home. Cooking one bowl of bird’s nest using nine grams of red swiftlet nest would cost you about S$90-S$110 ($66-$80 USD).
The labor-intensive and mechanization-defying process of harvesting nests also accounts for the price of the final product. Farmers have to scale ladders to obtain their harvest, removing each nest gently from the ceilings and ledges where the birds have built homes. They then have to clean the nests and remove any feathers and dirt before cooking them.
Cleaning the nests is an intricate process that has to be done with care to preserve the look of the nest. The cleaner the swiftlet nest, the higher the price it can command. Most prized is a “full cup” of nest, which has a higher retail value than the fragments and edges, even though both have the same nutritional value.
Clean Birds Nest of Indonesian swiftlets.
IMI Hamengku / Getty Images
The appeal of edible bird’s nest
Swiftlet nests’ immune-boosting properties were once a product of Chinese myth. In recent years, swiftlet farmers and food scientists have been investing in research to prove the nests’ nutritional benefits.
In edible bird’s nests, Malaysian researchers have found high levels of sialic acid, which is also found in breast milk. In 2006, researchers from Japan demonstrated that bird’s nest contains antiviral properties and inhibits infections from influenza; this was later confirmed in 2017 by a team of researchers from Malaysia and California.
Research by Hong Kong scientists from 1987 found that swiftlet nests contain a compound that acts similarly to Epidermal Growth Factor (EGF), the glycoprotein known for its anti-aging properties. Swiftlet nests are packaged into essences, used in cosmetics, skincare products, made into pills, and even mixed into coffee. Purest offers a bottled subscription, targeting young consumers who want a daily dose of swiftlet spit vitality while keeping aging at bay. Subscriptions cost between S$209-$359 ($155-$266 USD) per month for a box of four bottles.
Many bird’s nest brands are also certified halal, and so can be marketed to the Muslim populations in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
Controversy within the swiftlet-farming industry
Compared to other traditional Chinese medicines such as rhino horn or shark’s fin, the bird’s nest is “relatively ethical,” said Chiam, given that birds do not need to be killed when their nests are harvested.
A freshly harvested, unprocessed swiftlet bird nest.
ThamKC / Getty Images
When asked if it harms the bird that their nests are taken away, Mranata said swiftlets leave the building in the daytime to hunt for food. It is at this time that swiftlet farmers enter the building to measure, identify, and remove the mature nests. There are no babies in the nest. When a swiftlet returns, “at first they might panic,” he said. “They may fly away but then they come back. They are protected by the farm.”
“After a while, they don’t panic anymore. They get used to it,” Mranata said.
Still, there are accounts of birds being harmed or dying in the process. Environmentalist and attorney Jagath Gunawardana said in the Sunday Observer that swiftlet farmers do not wait until a chick vacates a nest before harvesting them. Rather, because the farmers prefer for nests to be as fresh as possible, they sometimes collect the nests and throw any eggs and chicks onto the floor. Because swiftlets cannot perch on the ground, these chicks get eaten alive by armies of ants that are attracted to the chicks and broken eggs.
In Sarawak, Malaysia’s largest state, there have been reports of nest theft depleting an entire swiftlet population of about four million birds in Niah National Park. And in China, a nation-wide check was conducted on all edible bird’s nests on the market after tests by the Zhejiang Administration for Industry and Commerce found more than 30,000 cups of red bird’s nest to contain up to 350 times the acceptable nitrate levels according to China’s health standards.
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