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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Swiftlet Spit

Caviar, Wagyu beef, black truffles, Dom Perignon.  All these foods come with an amazingly high price tag.  But perhaps the most expensive food in the world is something made by birds--specifically, a cave-dwelling member of the swift family called the swiftlet.

Swiftlet nests on a cave wall.
How, you may ask, do birds make this food?  Well, what do most birds make?  They make nests.  Yes, these nests are made from the congealed spit of the swiftlet.  Hungry yet?  For hundreds of years, the nests have been the food of Chinese royalty. 

Most famously used in Birds Nest Soup, the nests turn to a jelly-like consistency when soaked in liquid.  They are 60-70% protein, so despite their somewhat gross origins, they're fairly good for you.  The health of your bank account is another story.

These nests are sold for around $5000/pound and are a multi-billion dollar business in Asia--selling in countries that traditionally eat them, but also to Asian restaurants in the US and other Western countries. 

Birds Nest Soup
Swiftlets build nests in caves where they use bat-like sonar to navigate in the darkness.  Harvesters must scale the dangerous cave walls to pull the nests off the walls.  This has put the bird population in jeopardy.  And that's why some dealers go to great lengths to protect the birds and still use their nests.  Structures have been built to mimic the caves--regulated heat and humidity, bird poop splattered on the walls and amplified bird sounds to attract the birds to come and build.  The nests are only harvested after the eggs have hatched and the chicks have flown away. 

After harvesting, the nests are cleaned of feathers and other bird remnants.  This is painstaking, tedious work all done by hand.  All this adds to the great cost.  Even crumbs that break off of the nests during cleaning are collected and sold. 

So do you have a big celebration coming up?  A wedding or anniversary?  Come on, spring for some birds nest soup! 

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