THEY ARE PLUCKED from high on the walls of enormous caves by men who risk instant death while climbing about on bamboo and rattan ladders. They are protected by armed guards and, in some areas, barbed wire is used to defend them against theft. From remote islands in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean they are distributed, in an atmosphere of secrecy like that of the drug trade, by operatives who sometimes have high connections and invariably make equally high profits.
They are not precious gems or priceless antiquities. They are birds' nests.
Small, snow-white, shaped like a half-teacup, the bird's nest is so revered in Chinese gastronomy--as an aphrodisiac, delicious delicacy, magical booster of health and purifying sacrament--that in some parts of the world it is virtually worth its weight in gold.
My desire to learn about the nests began in Hong Kong. I was the guest of my friend Fen Dow Chan in a small Chinese restaurant on a back street of Kowloon, so far from the tourist avenues that the restaurant's name was posted in Chinese ideographs only. The dining room was extremely comfortable and beautifully decorated. There were figures and fittings of ivory and jade. There was the softness of satins, silks and tapestries. There was no written menu, but the dish that Fen Dow ordered was immediately translated for me as "nests of sea swallows with venomous snake and chrysanthemum petals with lemon grass and lotus seeds in soup."
After we had sipped some "Iron Buddha" tea and nibbled on small slivers of preserved goose, the waiter brought in a large tureen and set it on the side table. At this moment, a strange figure entered the room, half shuffling, half skating toward us in his black velvet slippers. It was an ancient, bearded gentleman wearing a long, loose scarlet robe. Hanging by a red-silk cord from his left wrist was a brown leather bag ornamented with silver-dragon designs, with something moving inside. As he reached the tureen, the head of a live snake rose from the bag, its forked tongue darting. With a quick motion, the old man grasped the anke behind the head and, deftly squeezing, appeared to spritz into the soup just a drop or two of the venom.
There could be no question as to the extraordinary excellence of this soup. Its brilliant balance of tastes and textures--its combination of pure simplicity and a rainbow of complicated sensuous flavors--made it the single greatest Chinese dish I have ever tasted. Tiny slivers of snake meat had been shredded into the soup, but the dominant ingredient was the translucent, spaghetti-like, gelatinous birds' nests. They gave a sense of luxurious richness to the soup. Cutting through the velvety flavor was the citrus tang of chrysanthemum petals and lemon grass.
While we consumed the soup, Fen Dow talked incessantly, unburdening his soul, which, this Sunday morning, was deeply troubled. I had promised to pick him up at his apartment and take him to lunch. But when I got there, I found him still in bed and in terrible shape. On Saturday night he had been "out with the bad boys," and everything had gone desperately wrong. They had drunk too much 110-proof Mao Tai. As the night deepened, so did their troubles. They went to "puff a pipe or two" in one of the clandestine opium houses. This morning his body felt like lead and his spirits were black. I offered at once to take him to his doctor. "No," Fen Dow said. "More than anything, I must have some bird's nest soup. Help me get dressed and then we'll go to my favorite place."
In the restaurant, after his third large bowl, Fen Dow was visibly recovering. He made clear to me the almost magical esteem in which the Chinese hold the nests of the "sea swallow." It was not just a matter of hunger or nutrition. He was convinced that the soup would restore balance and strength to his body and mind and give him long life, virility and wisdom.
In reality, the white nests are not built by swallows but by one particular small bird belonging to the family of swifts. Because of its comparatively small size, the bird is known as a swiftlet, more specifically as the edible-nest or white-nest swiftlet. It builds its nests primarily in sea caves, although some swiftlets nest in inland areas far from the coast. It feeds by swooping through the air, catching flying insects.
When the male is ready to start building the nest, he picks a high, safe place, and out of his mouth comes a secretion from his now-swollen salivary glands. This paste, or nest cement, as it is called, emerges from his mouth in a continuous thin strand of soft "spaghetti." He weaves it, swinging his small head this way and that, into a nest shaped like a shallow half-cup. As the nest dries, all of the strands stick solidly together, and the entire nest is "glued" firmly to the rock wall. In this little haven, the female lays her eggs and rears her young for about two months.