Not all nests are created equal. So just what exactly makes for a premium bird’s nest?
It’s a delicacy that many don’t quite comprehend. After all, where’s the appeal in salivary excretion?
But for many Chinese gourmands, the edible bird nests produced by the white-nest swiftlet (Aerodamus fuciphagus) and black-nest swiftlet (Aerodamus maximus) are highly prized.
Bird’s nests are made up of salivary excretion and feathers and impurities, and the higher the percentage of excretion, the better. Nests produced by white nest swiftlets typically boast between 70 to 80 per cent salivary excretion, which make them very desirable compared to those of black nest swiftlets, which only comprise up to 30 per cent salivary excretion.
There are two types of bird’s nests—cave nest and house nest. The former is harvested from limestone caves in Thailand and Indonesia, a dangerous endeavour that requires harvesters to scale treacherous cave walls. Perhaps this is why cave nests are widely perceived to be more exclusive. Accordingly, their prices are much higher than that of house nests.
As the name suggests, house nests are produced in swiftlet farms, which are housed in buildings located in forested areas and specially designed to mimic the swiftlet’s natural habitats. These farms use calling sounds designed to attract only white-nest swiftlets, which produce cleaner nests. The birds build their nests in the buildings but enter and leave at will to seek food and water. Indonesia currently produces approximately 80 per cent of the world’s supply.
Jemane Ing, brand guardian of new brand Swift Heritage—which purveys premium additive- and preservative-free bird’s nests— and chef Mok Kit Keung, executive chinese chef of Shangri-La Hotel, Singapore share their expertise on bird’s nest.
What is the single biggest misconception about bird’s nest?
JI: That cave nests are better than house nests. Both types of nests come from the same breed of swiftlet, and therefore the nests are both naturally constructed. Cave nests came with a price tag due to the danger involved during harvesting. In terms of quality, house nest is much better as the environment is much cleaner.
What are the three most important considerations in assessing the quality of bird’s nest when purchasing them?
JI: In general, size, colour and purity are key when it comes to assessing quality. Whole nests sell at higher prices. Any bits that have fallen off the whole nests are swept up and sold to buyers looking for cheaper nests. Good quality nests have a more compact consistency.
Wider and thicker cups also represent higher quality. Unique colours like gold or red command higher prices as they are much rarer. Ivory/ cream is an excellent standard too.
In the industry, purity often refers to the cleanliness of the bird’s nest. The lesser the feathers and impurities on the nest, the higher the price. The highest grade would be the purest—that is, 90 per cent edible upon harvesting, with very little cleaning required.
They have thicker strands and are often ivory, white, gold or blood red in colour. The more you put the nests through the cleaning process, the more nutrients are lost.
Inferior nests on the market are sometimes padded with fillers such as bird’s nest crumbs, hasma, tapioca and gelatin. Others create man-
made bird’s nest out of the crumbs of real nests. The only way to ensure you are not buying fake nests is to buy from reputable sellers.
How does quality bird’s nest differ from inferior versions in taste?
JI: Bird’s nest is tasteless. However, a good indication of quality is by the texture and density of the cooked nests. The soaking test is a good indicator—the better the quality of the nest, the less time required for it to fully expand. A good quality nest can expand as much as 10 to 12 times from its original dried form.
How long should we soak bird’s nest for—is longer better?
MKC: I would recommend soaking the bird’s nest for about three to four hours. Bird’s nest will lose its nutritional value and texture if soaked for too long.
What’s the best way to enjoy bird’s nest for maximum taste and benefit?
MKC: After soaking the bird’s nest in water for about three hours, check if it turns transparent. Remove the portion that is not transparent and soak again. If you are making a dessert, cook for about 30 minutes. Add in the bird’s nest only after the dessert is almost cooked. Do not overcook the bird’s nest.
What are some no-nos when cooking bird’s nest?
MKC: Never mix bird’s nest with oil as it will cause the bird’s nest to lose its water content.
What are the nutritional benefits to bird’s nest? JI: Amino acids are the powerhouse nutrients in bird’s nest; these are the building blocks of cell reproduction. Among their myriad functions, the amino acids in bird’s nest such as aspartic acid, arginine, leucine, proline and valine promote healthy metabolism and immune function, support muscle and tissue repair, and stimulate the production of growth hormones, which contribute to younger-looking skin. Hence, there is bird’s nest’s reputation as an anti-ageing elixir.
Bird’s nest is also rich in trace minerals, which support essential functions of the body, such as the production of enzymes. The anti-ageing and health-giving amino acids are best absorbed on an empty stomach for maximum benefit.
How much bird’s nest should one consume?
JI: About 3 to 10 grammes of dried nest per day.
Swift Heritage’s nests are produced additiveand preservative-free. Briefly describe some of the production processes undertaken to ensure this without compromising on quality.
JI: Swift Heritage does not use any chemicals in cleaning as they can break down the fragile proteins and are not healthy. Manual cleaning is an artisanal art today and a labour-intensive process. We harvest our bird’s nests fewer times a year, and only after the swiftlets have abandoned their nests. This practice of letting nature take its course means harvesting fully formed nests of high purity during a safe period, thus ensuring both quality and ethical farming.
Swift Heritage does not produce huge quantities. Instead, we focus on quality. Our commitment is to ensure that the nests you consume retain its original high level of nutrients. Swift Heritage nests undergo two tests from AgriFood and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) and TUV. We believe that customers deserve to be assured that the product they are paying for is authentic.