From the Blog

June 6, 2016

Caviar of the East

Edible bird’s nests, sometimes described as ‘Caviar of the East’

These tiny Birds Nests are considered one of the five elite foods highly prized by the Chinese. This is due to their rarity, supposedly high nutritional value and exquisite flavor; the others are abalone, fish maw, ginseng, and shark’s fin.

Many Chinese also believe, that the nests promote good health when drunk as a tonic, especially for the skin and lungs, it is for these reasons these nests are among the most expensive animal products consumed by humans.


Edible bird's nests, sometimes described as ‘the caviar of the East’

Harvest on Ko Phi Phi, Thailand.


Sea Swallows

The swiftlet, part of the swift family, (also known as Sea Swallows) are tiny insectivorous birds. They can be found in the Indian Ocean, throughout Southeast Asia and north Australia to the Pacific.

Their normal domain is among the craggy, sea-splashed caves of Southeast Asia in areas where there were no twigs, no grass and no soft earth to burrow into. Somewhere along the evolutionary road, these speedy birds, (they can fly at speeds of 170 kilometers per hour), during their matting season, started churning out an abundance of saliva. When dried forms tiny nests about the size and hardness of tea cups, which are attach high to cavern walls.


Caviar of the East Eric Valli

Picture by Eric Valli

Innovation from Thailand

Bird’s nest soup, was supposedly invented around 1750, by a Siam-based Chinese man named Hao Yieng, who discovered that the nests of the “wind-eating” swiflets were soluble in water. He was later able to sell his newly found miracle produce to doctors who would boil the bird’s nests into a globular soup and administer it to sick patients. This same practice continues to this day.

In 1770, the King of Siam, reportedly granted Hao Yieng a monopoly on the bird nest trade. He promptly became rich. Later the Siamese took back control of the nests and a “corps of hereditary collectors” was established. This was later changed where today licenses are awarded to the highest bidders.


The entire global industry is an estimated $5 billion

Indonesia is the biggest producer (70%) followed by Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Myanmar, India, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. It is estimated that in Indonesia the product now accounts for 0.5% of the Indonesian GDP, equivalent to about a quarter of the country’s fishing industry. Thailand exports about 19,800 pounds annually, which generates $23.8 million in taxes.


Locations in Thailand

Most of the natural nesting limestone caves are found in the southern provinces, especially in the Phang Nga Bay area. With the worldwide escalation in demand these natural sources have been supplanted since the late 1990’s, by purpose-built nesting houses, usually reinforced concrete structures sometimes called ‘swiftlet hotels’. These nesting houses can be found in urban areas near the sea, including the eastern provinces of Rayong and Trat.

Caviar of the East Nesting house

Swiftlet Hotel


Types of bird species and quality of the nests

The edible nests are made by three bird species: 1) the edible-nest swiftlet or white-nest swiftlet (Aerodramus fuciphagus); 2) Germain’s swiftlet (Aerodramus germani); 3 and the black-nest swiftlet (Aerodramus maximus).

There are three grades of nests: the most common are the white nests made entirely of saliva and the lesser valued black nests which can contain plant materials and feathers, which in turn discolour the nests.


Caviar of the East Ko Rang Nok

Photo Glenn van der Knijff Lonely Plan, of Ko Rang Nok-bird island. of See our post Thai Desert Islands Incl those where you risk life & limb


The black nests are normally harvested after the chicks have left, while the white are harvested before the eggs are laid. White nests are the second most valuable, as they are generally made by birds that nest deep inside the caves, where there is less chance of the elements contaminating them. Generally the whiter and purer a nest the more tasty and valuable it is. Black nests are not eaten until they have been properly cleaned.

There is also the most prized of bird nests that of the Red Nest, these nests are believed to be the best for medicines and hence fetch a higher price than their counterparts. Myth has it, they get their reddish hue from the blood of the swiftlet, as they build the nests, research however has proven the red nests colour is purely a result of the mineral content, on the rocks which seeps into the nest.

The high cost and demand for red nests has attracted counterfeiters, where white and black nests are treated with a red pigment. Counterfeiting is such a big issue it led to the halt of Malaysian nest exports to China and the introduction by the government of micro-chipping nests. Fake white nest products are also widely available.


Harvesting and Control

Harvesting is controlled and regulated, to protect the birds and make the sure the supply of bird’s nests is not depleted. Companies pay governments as much as $500,000 a year for the right to collect bird nests in certain caves or certain islands. The Thai government alone collects about $25 million a years from five companies that collect nests from 140 islands.

Cave nests are collected twice a year: once before the eggs are laid and again after the birds have made a second nest and the fledglings are gone.

The nests are harvested by men that sometimes climb hundreds of feet up to roofs on flimsy bamboo scaffolding and rattan ropes. The men use special knives and three-pronged tweezers, that have been pre-blessed by the cave spirits, to cut and pull the nests off the cave walls. It can take as much as 8 hours to harvest 10 nests in a well stocked cave. See our post Ghosts Spirits and Thai Folklore


Caviar of the East by Eric Valli

Picture by Eric Valli

Violence and Poachers

Due to the large sums of money involved, poaching is a problem in Thailand, (as it is wherever these birds make their homes), with many caves protected by armed guards and the installation of barbed wire and booby traps. In the early 1990’s, clashes between licensed collectors and locals who poached on nest concession areas, resulted in the deaths of 29 villagers in Pattalung Province.

Studies have indicated that populations of some swiftlet communities have declined as a result of poaching and over farming. Some caves, have only a third of the nests they once had, while others have been abandoned completely, because there are so few nests left, that it is unprofitable to collect them.

By one estimate the over harvesting of nests and destruction of swiftlet habitats led to a decline in the number of birds by 73 percent in some areas between 1962 and 1990.


Caviar of the East Harvesting Nests

Picture by Eric Valli

What swifts want

Here in Thailand, all manner of industries have popped up to support this ever growing ancient trade, including providers of humidifiers heat fans, laser infrared thermometer guns, plastic nest moulds to entice the birds to make their nests, Horn tweeters (an electronic bird caller) and bird ‘Love Potion’

Cooking Birds Nests

When dissolved in water, the birds’ nests have a gelatinous texture and are used for savory or sweet soup. They can also be found in many other Chinese dishes; cooked with rice to produce bird’s nest congee or bird’s nest boiled rice, or they can be added to egg tarts and other desserts.

A bird’s nest jelly can be made by placing the bird’s nest in a ceramic container with minimal water and sugar (or salt) and double steamed. Ready-to-eat bird’s nest jelly is also available in jars as a commercial product.

While I have only tasted them once, in their cooked form and before any chicken broth was added, I found them to be tasteless, with a strange, phlegmy texture, but hey what do I know!


Caviar of the East Black Nest Swiflet

Picture above – Black Nest Swiflet

So there you have it, a tiny bird and their nests that are fought over, eaten by those that want to demonstrate their wealth, collected by men who risk their lives climbing into darkened caves and pampered by others with bird Viagra and mating calls……. not bad for an animal that is no bigger than an orange.




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