A History of Bird's Nest Soup

Bird's nest
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 bird’s nest soup will help them keep the last of their youth as well as have a long healthy life and a strong body. It’s believed a solution for these is to eat a bowl of bird’s nest soup.


But the nutritional truth is if you want bird’s nest soup to work it’s magic you will have to consume this soup regularly.

Just consuming 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.


Edible bird’s nests are made by the salvia of the edible nest swiftlet and the saliva is produced by the glands under the tongue. Swiftlets are small birds usually found in South-East Asia. The swiftlift lives in dark caves and similar to bats use echolocation to move around. Instead of twigs and straw, the swiftlet makes it’s nest from strands of it’s own gummy saliva which hardens when exposed to air.


This is where the controversy also comes in. Swiftlets are an endangered species and the more nests that are consumed the closer Swiflets head towards extinction. I’ve seen bird’s nest soup in restaurants and I’ve not had interest in trying it personally but it is definitely popular. Swiftlet’s are especially endangered in areas like the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

There are also places like Dazhou Island and Hainan where the Chinese government has banned harvesting bird’s nests as swiftlets are nearly extinct in these locations.


Today in many places, for example Malaysia and Thailand, people have started farming the swiftlet’s to collect their birds nests. These farms are using empty houses as swiftlet’s homes.


Some of the processes of harvesting nests are extremely dangerous. The nest collector usually uses a very narrow, shaky and long wooden ladder which they climb on top of to reach the nests which are usually located at the top of caves. Many nest collector’s have lost their lives because of this.


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 which are red, yellow and white. The red bird’s nest is known in Chinese as the “blood-red bird’s nest (血燕). The red bird’s nest is the rarest. Some people believe the blood red bird’s nest is made by the swiflet’s blood but that’s not true at all. The reason of the bird’s nest turn “blood red” is due to different diet and contained more mineral and different kind of nutrition.


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 as a sweet dessert soup. Some people prefer to cook bird’s nest without rock sugar but mix it with some warm milk.

The cooking process is extremely critical for cooking bird’s nest. Microwave cooking or boiling on a stove will lost any taste it has as well as lose any of it’s nutritional values.  The common way to cook bird’s nest soup is to slowly and gently steam it after soaking it in water.


According to the website: swiftletfarming.org, In 2010, 1 kg of raw bird’s nest sells at about US$1000-US$1500 while processed bird’s nest sells at a much higher price. 1kg costs between $3000-7000. A small bowl of bird’s nest soup in Hong Kong will cost $30 to $100. This is why people called bird’s nest soup “Eastern Caviar”. 

Edited by Liv Wan