Bird’s nest soup sounds like it shouldn’t exist. But it does, and it truly is soup, with a real bird's nest as the main ingredient.
It’s no potato and leek, that’s for sure. But bird's nest, sometimes called the “caviar of Asia,” might just make the leap into the mainstream. Perhaps an Instagram celebrity–endorsed energy drink, or even a cocktail component at somewhere like the Roger Room? California company Blessing Birdnest hopes so.
The raw product, the nests, are built by small birds called swiftlets; these ever-industrious creatures build the nests out of their own solidified saliva.
The nests, which look like small bowls and are graded somewhat like coffee or wine — rated depending on the bird, its diet and its location — come in various colors and are carefully harvested after each breeding period by climbing high into limestone caves in Indonesian islands, Thailand, Malaysia or Vietnam; for the last 20 years or so, they're collected from specially built concrete nesting houses.
When dissolved in water, the bird’s nests have a gelatinous texture and are used for sweet or savory soups, though they can also be cooked with rice and added to egg tarts and other desserts, even double-steamed jellies (just add a little water and sugar or salt).
Containing amino acids, protein, calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium, bird’s nests are considered exceptionally nutritious and healthy. They’ve been a component of Chinese medicine for more than 400 years and are said to enhance the immune system, smooth skin, fight colds and cleanse the blood, among other things. It's often an important culinary element of Chinese New Year.
Feathered house or no, bird’s nest must have something going for it because, believe it or not, it’s one of the most expensive animal products you can buy, with nests fetching prices of $2,000 to $10,000 or more per kilogram.
Of course, the prepurchase preparation process is more than just dissolving the nests in water, and many companies do the lengthy work of boiling, steaming and cleaning different types and concentrates for all levels of this lucrative market.
Despite scares about smuggling, counterfeiting (coloring nests red to make them more valuable) and even worries about avian flu, companies have long looked to export the nests and get FDA approval for their consumption.
The bird’s nest soup business is booming, worth around $5 billion worldwide, despite being seen as an unknown oddity outside Asia. The United States is one of the largest importers, spending around $1 million a year. Sales are especially huge among the Vietnamese-American population of the San Gabriel Valley, where Blessing Birdnest drink has been available for some time.
Importing the raw product from Indonesia but cleaning and bottling it here, Blessing Birdnest is a family business that’s been based in Yorba Linda for 16 years, and this “super grade” drink version is a stab at another direction.
It was developed over a span of three years by Fullerton-based chemist Sandra Lim, but when a bottle of it was handed to Roger Room bartender Jason Porter, 36, he wasn’t sure what to make of it as he sampled a sip from the 240ml bottle.
Since bird’s nest lacks a strong taste, the drink has some sugar cane added to it. There are no other additives, and no preservatives, and it has what they call “long strands” (like the pulp you get in pure orange juice) floating lazily in it.
“I’d be looking more to ingredients and texture, and that means I can muddle something with it,” Porter said, noting that it seems to be a healthier alternative to simple syrups.
Porter substitutes a quarter ounce of bird’s nest for the simple syrup in a Four Aces, one of the bar's most popular drinks, and the concoction of vodka, lime juice, green grapes and basil turns out surprisingly well: fresh, and with a finish made light by the bird's nest addition.
Score one for the bird’s nest, “though the price of it ($115 for 12 bottles) would make it a premium cocktail,” he says. The ultra-concentrated 150ml two-pack is even costlier at $45, while adding a gift box of dry nests and the drinks to, say, a swag bag at an awards ceremony or giving one as a wedding gift would cost you more than $1,600.
Using it in hot cocktails like a toddy or a tea and absinthe seems a natural fit, too, noted Porter, and it also worked as a substitute for ground vanilla bean in the Bum Vivant, a gin and St. Germain with lemon juice and prosecco that’s on the new fall menu.
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Porter takes a sip of his experiments, and then hands the bottle to another curious bartender, saying that he “feels better already.”
Angelenos were skeptical about wheatgrass shots, quinoa, vitamin water, acaï and kale at one time, so maybe bird’s nest will be boosting juices or impressing high-end mixologists and their pickiest patrons sometime soon as well.