Expensive Eats - Birds Nest Soup
When it comes to delicacies this rare soup is among the most coveted in Asia. Its appearance seems quite benign as the gelatinous mixture, a steamed bird's nest, rests in a light chicken broth but when you discover the true contents of this unique offering it might change your mind. The key ingredient is truly a bird's nest but not one made of twigs and leaves, the sparrow-sized swiftlet's nest is primarily composed of saliva. The complete structure is built within thirty-five days by the male swiftlet to accommodate one to two eggs and its shallow cup shape does not exceed the size of a human hand.
The nests are harvested three times a year and the swiftlets are typically given time to breed and raise their young in the nest before removal.
Gallery: Bird's Nest Soup
Typically the birds will nest in coastal caves but with a growing demand for the soup numerous, man-made nesting sites are constructed to encourage more to nest near suppliers. Collection of the nests in their native caves is a treacherous process of careful climbing and nimble skill which adds value to the end-price.
There are a variety of nests available for purchase: White, Yellow/Red and Black. White is considered the most pure but the yellow/red and black varities only gain their color from the different minerals consumed in the bird's diet. The first nest of the breeding year is typically the most highly prized as it is the cleanest and requires less attention before it is ready for consumption. Later nests have raised young and require more cleaning.
The original discovery of this as a culinary treat is unknown but it has been considered part of Chinese culture for over 1,500 years. The bird's nest is applauded for its medicinal properties including improved complexion, raising libido and benefitting the immune system. Both Hong Kong and the United States are the largest importers of birds' nests charging between $30 and $100 per bowl of soup while a single kilogram of nest can cost between $2,000 and $10,000. Called the 'Caviar of the East' it is easy to see why this one-of-a-kind food is in a class of its own.
If you're looking to try this delicacy in the U.S. I would search for high-end restaurants in established China Towns such as San Francisco's but it looks as though one restaurant in Monterey, California called Elite Restaurant offers Bird's Nest Soup to daring customers and Phoenix Restaurant in the Windy City has a sweet version to try. You can also purchase them yourself.