Samui Wining & Dining
Leaving the Nest

Bird 's nest soup is a Chinese delicacy - so what’s it got to do with Samui?


16Long ago in China, there was an emperor who delighted in all the gourmet dishes that his royal cook made for him. The emperor had decreed that only the best cook – his cook – was able to make a different dish every day, and this he demanded. But one day the cook finally ran out of ideas. In despair, he ran down to the harbour to see if any merchant ships had new ingredients. And, lo and behold, he came across a sailor who showed him a bird’s nest from Borneo. “But how do I cook this?” he asked. “How the hell would I know!” swore the swarthy sailor. “You’re the cook! All I know is it has the special power to make life longer.”

      The cook decided that all he could do was to boil the nest and make soup out of it, adding herbs and spices and presenting it on a plate with magical symbols. “It’s long-life soup,” he nervously explained. The emperor was furious. “It tastes of totally nothing,” he ranted. “I’ll have your head off over a bed of hot ants!” “It’s from Borneo,” the cook stammered – “from the exotic Forbidden City.” “Ah. An exotic and magical dish, now I understand,” beamed the emperor. “From now on I want you to make this for me every day, so I shall live longer.”

      And so the cook kept it all secret and made sure that all those who brought him bird’s nests were killed. The emperor went on to live a long and healthy life, and the cook became rich and famous. And the secret soup and its recipe were kept inside the royal court. But the Emperor’s successors were the ones who truly benefited; as if it is ever served to their guests they can be sure that their host is taking good care of them. After all, the dish is fit for an Emperor!

       What a charming load of twaddle. But there are many thousands of people all over the world for whom, even today (no doubt along with powdered rhino horn and slices of grilled bull’s penis), the legend rings true and they’ll swear by the esoteric properties of all of these things. It has to be said that (except for a few isolated tribes scattered across the Amazon Basin) the upholders of these beliefs are invariably either Chinese or of Chinese descent. And the majority of these (and the restaurants that cater to their tastes) are to be found in Hong Kong, Singapore and several North American cities.

       But is this so far removed from eating haggis, hedgehog skin, cock’s combs, roosters feet, camel hump, liver, tongue or kangaroo tails? Answer – yes it is. Because all these items have their own defined flavour, and are sought-after as delicacies for gourmet reasons. Bird’s nest soup has no taste at all, and is sought-after only for its magical properties. The bird’s nests are not just any old raven’s thatch, found up a tree somewhere. They are the nests of the swiftlet, a tiny bird, commonly found throughout southeast Asia. The swiftlet lives in caves and makes its nest from strands of its own gummy saliva, which hardens when exposed to air. Inevitably their nests are of a red hue, because the exertion of sucking up the necessary amounts of saliva draws blood out of its body and soul – this has magical properties, which is the reason why the best bird’s nest soup is red. Really?

      No. That’s just another tale woven into the story, lending even more weight to the exotic nature of the fable. The reality is that cave nests will turn red only due to the moist surfaces inside the cave and the surrounding mineral content of the rock, which seeps into the nest. This is the ideal – a red nest – and what’s in demand, because of this blood-mystique. But the majority of swiftlet nests remain their natural bird-spit-grey in colour. And so enter the entrepreneurs, who then proceed to colour the white nests in order to command top-dollar. The harvest is deliberately delayed to let the gas from the swiftlet’s droppings react with the nest. This gas is ammonia – an aggressively toxic compound mainly used in chemical fertilizers and household cleaning agents. Not surprisingly, it has been found that long-term consumption of bird’s nests that have been contaminated in this way leads to adverse effects on health – the exact opposite result from that which is desired! And the above information comes to you courtesy of Pureness Bird’s Nest, a world-wide organisation dedicated to stamping out the unethical harvesting of these prized gourmet items. (Personally, I’m bemused as to why they go to all this effort. A couple of drops of food colouring would do the trick and save a ton of time and money.)

      And money it is! The ‘Caviar of the East’ is one of the most expensive animal products consumed by humans. In Hong Kong, a bowl of bird’s nest soup costs between $10 and $30 a serving. Wholesale, a kilogram of white bird’s nest commands up to $2,000, and a kilogram of the red stuff can fetch as much as $10,000. To put this into context, gold is currently $55 a gram. One bowl of red bird’s nest soup is quite literally worth its weight in gold.

      And so to Samui. Did you realise that we have our own bird’s nest soup farm here? It’s protected: closely-guarded by armed overseers (who live in shacks on the cliff-edge) and it’s totally taboo to land a boat on these few islands. These are the ‘Five Islands’, off the west coast of Samui, close to Ban Taling Ngam. And here’s the kicker – if you know the right people you can actually take an afternoon boat trip, which lands, on one of these sacrosanct islands for lunch. Really! There’s some kind of arrangement between the boaters and the guards – your Thai captain will yell chummily at a couple of guards perched up on the hill, and shortly afterwards a little white beach appears. Time for a break and some snorkelling. There’s a small reef here and the water’s teeming with colour – with the guard’s shotguns perched safely on a ledge way up above your heads.

      Just Google ‘Five Island’s boat trip’ to see what I mean. It’s a bit of a secret really, but you’ll go out on the boat with this wealth of local knowledge under your belt – and might even get to see the swiftlets leaving their nests!

Rob De Wet


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