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I always thought bird's nest soup was a yummy Chinese treat made with noodles and broth. Shows you what I know, or maybe just my unfamiliarity with truly haute cuisine.
Real Chinese bird's nest soup is made with, well, an actual bird's nest.
More specifically, it's made with the nest of the swiftlet, a small swallow-like fellow that lives in caves and under the eaves of houses, mostly in Asia and subtropical regions.
These lovely little creatures - here's one on its famous and edible nest:
- these lovely little creatures navigate through the darkness of the caverns and chasms where they live with a form of echolocution, much like bats, certain whales, and blind animals like shrews.
Echolocution, the same principle used by sonar and radar, involves projecting waves of a certain type, in this case a low pitched clicking sound, and calculating the distance from objects and obstacles by the way the sound bounces back.
That, of course, does not explain anything about the soup.
Swiftlet nests are made not of twigs, straw, and other scavenged articles, but of strings of mucusy saliva excreted orally by the bird itself. The saliva hardens and forms a shell in which the swiftlet rears its young.
I don't know who exactly discovered that the nests are edible, but the Chinese have used them for at least 1,500 years, harvested and cleaned, and placed in hot soup to separate into their noodle-like strands.
Imitation bird's nest soup is the likely example on most menus, made indeed of noodles. Real bird's nest soup is very expensive, with a kilo of blood red nest fetching nearly $2000USD.
It's no wonder, then, that the little guys are in danger from over- and illegal harvesting. Although strict measures are in place to stop depletion of the species, the swiftlet is becoming more rare every year.
And just what's the appeal? The legend of how the soup was introduced to China claims that the Emperor to whom it was given was not particularly impressed with it until he was told that it promoted longevity.
The clincher, though, was when he was told it was from Burma, and therefore a rare delicacy. He immediately banned its consumption by the general populace.