A BIRD’S NEST IN HAND

Is worth a lot.

The Peak (Malaysia) - - The Peak Expert - TEXT KOH YUEN LIN PHOTOGRAPHY ZAPHS ZHANG ART DIREC­TION & IL­LUS­TRA­TIONS DENISE REI LOW

Spit­tle. To be more pre­cise, swift­let spit­tle. That is es­sen­tially what many are pay­ing thou­sands of dol­lars for, to have a taste. And this cer­tainly isn’t yet another trend­ing superfood. In China, records of its con­sump­tion can be traced back to as early as dur­ing the Tang dy­nasty (618 – 907). And in Ming dy­nasty physi­cian Li Shizhen’s Com­pendium of Ma­te­ria Med­ica – a 16th cen­tury her­bol­ogy vol­ume that is con­sulted by Chi­nese medicine prac­ti­tion­ers even to­day – it is listed as a nour­ish­ing and heal­ing in­gre­di­ent that boosts vi­tal­ity.

“Bird’s nest is also known as ‘ White Gold’,” says Je­mane Ing, who sits on the board of premium bird’s nest pur­veyor Swift Her­itage in Sin­ga­pore. “A kilo­gram of high qual­ity bird’s nest can cost as much as MYR29,417.” Yet many are will­ing to pay the premium for it. Ac­cord­ing to a re­port in Shin Min Daily News last year, an in­crease in de­mand has caused the im­port price for farmed nests from In­done­sia – the most pop­u­lar on the mar­ket – to surge from MYR5,883 to around MYR8,825 per kilo­gram within a year.

The grow­ing de­mand is met by en­ter­pris­ing nest farm­ers who have changed the in­dus­try com­pletely. Where har­vest­ing used to be a la­bo­ri­ous and death-de­fy­ing act of pick­ing nests from cave walls while bal­anc­ing on bam­boo poles, now it is a mat­ter of tak­ing them down from the beams of pur­pose-built multi-storey struc­tures where thou­sands of swiftlets roost. This prac­tice not only protects the safety of the har­vester, but also al­lows the sur­vival of the species. Ram­pant over­har­vest­ing in the past often meant chicks were not al­lowed to hatch be­fore the nests were taken.

Yet mod­ern prac­tices are not in­sus­cep­ti­ble to greed ei­ther. “Un­eth­i­cal meth­ods of pro­duc­tion (such as har­vest­ing up to 10 times a year to max­imise yield, and speed clean­ing us­ing chem­i­cals) are more ram­pant than ever,” says Ing. Swift Her­itage nests are har­vested only af­ter the birds have aban­doned it. Yet not all nests are made equal, and it is ad­mit­tedly dif­fi­cult for the un­trained to de­ter­mine the qual­ity by sight. So do your re­search and don’t be afraid to ask ques­tions – as you would when mak­ing any high-val­ued pur­chase.

BEAUTIFIED Swift Her­itage sells tra­di­tional bird’s nest, while Nest­bloom’s (pink, white and green puffs) are shaped into flow­ers.

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