Every once in a while I stumble upon a food and think, “What sick mind came up with this idea in the first place?” Bird’s nest soup falls into that category. I’d like to meet whoever first decided to soak a bird’s nest in water overnight, then pick feathers and feces out of the nest, add it to a bowl of chicken broth, onions, sherry, and egg white, and then start eating. C’mon, that’s insane.
The soup’s flavor depends largely on the geographic region of the nest. I love nests harvested near the ocean. They offer a sea-salty, briny flavor (the birds eat primarily saltwater fish, the nests are full of their saliva, spewdom, and droppings. It only makes sense that the nests would taste of the sea!). Some chefs like to play up the salty flavor (and sometimes slimi- ness) of the soup. I’m cool with that. To me, it just tastes like Mom’s chicken soup—seasoned with bird spit and lots of slimy chunks.
However, the Chinese (as well as some Taiwanese and Indonesians) have enjoyed this ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼gelatinous, soupy delicacy for hundreds if not over a thousand years. The soup isn’t made from any old nest. The soup calls for the nest of a bird called the swiftlet or cave swift. These birds produce special nests found not in trees but in caves throughout southern Asia, the south Pacific islands, and northeastern Australia.
As you can imagine, it’s not easy to attach a nest to a cave wall. These industrious birds use a mixture of seaweed, twigs, moss, hair, and feathers to fashion the nest. The truly bizarre secret ingredient: saliva. Male birds gorge themselves on seaweed, which causes them to salivate like a Labradoodle at a picnic. Saliva threads, which contain a bonding protein called mucilage, spew out of the bird’s mouth. Once dry, the saliva acts as cement. The crafty avian will continue to build on to the nest until it can support the weight of its bird family. The process usually takes about forty-five days.
- The birds live in southern Asia, the south Pacific islands, and northeastern Australia.
- Swiftlets have four toes and short legs, so they cannot perch, but they can cling to vertical surfaces like the side of a cave or their nests.
- A swiftlet’s diet is made up of insects and more insects, with insects for dessert.
- Swiftlets mate for life, and both the male and female take care of the babies.
- Swiftlets typically lay one to two eggs.
- Saliva is 98 percent water. The other 2 percent is made up of electrolytes, mucus, antibacterial compounds, and various enzymes.
- Saliva is used in the first part of digestion. It moistens food and starts to break it down with its enzymes. It also helps to create a food bolus to help us swallow. Our mouths, with the help of saliva, roll our chewed food into a ball, so the food goes down the esophagus and not the trachea.
- When you have to vomit, there is a signal sent to your brain and you create extra saliva. This makes the vomit less acidic, protecting your throat, mouth, and teeth from burning and decay.
- The average person makes 700 milliliters of saliva per day. That’s the equivalent to more than two cans of soda.
- Your spit production slows down when you sleep.
- The mouth is the most unsanitary part of your body. It houses about 10 billion bacteria.
- Saliva rinses the mouth to reduce the bacteria amount, but at night when its production slows down, there is very little cleaning being done. That’s why we often wake up with bad breath. We smell all of the bacteria that have built up overnight. It’s mouth B.O.