HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — To the Western palate, dining on bird spit may sound unappetizing. But to people here and across Asia, it is a highly coveted delicacy.
Nests made from the congealed saliva of Asian swiftlets, a member of the swift family that can navigate in total darkness, is a multibillion-dollar industry. Selling for as much as $5,000 a pound, the edible nests — dubbed the “caviar of the East” — are sought by connoisseurs from Chengdu, China, to Cupertino. Once reserved for Chinese royalty, the nests are now popular among the nouveau riche, who devour the stringy, high-protein food both to show off their wealth and because they believe it provides a host of health benefits. It’s popular to consume the nests, which like tofu absorb other flavors, in seafood soups as well as in beverages.
“They believe it’s the product for a king and queen,” said Ha Bui, a Ho Chi Minh City resident who, like many Vietnamese, is a fan of bird’s nest even if it is too expensive to be enjoyed very often.
The nests are stocked in Asian markets in Silicon Valley, though they are usually kept in a backroom because they are so expensive, and some Chinese restaurants offer them. The saliva nests, formed into shallow cups, develop a jellylike texture when soaked in liquid.
Inviting a friend to a bird’s nest meal is akin to sharing a very expensive bottle of wine, said Hung Le, a San Jose software engineer who has received such an offer in the past. “It means something important. People think, ‘This guy must have money.’ “
In Asia, it is a $5 billion industry, said Le Danh Hoang, who founded Hoang Yen, a Ho Chi Minh City-based bird’s nest business with annual revenues of $3 million and growing rapidly. In Vietnam, it’s a $200 million industry, behind Indonesia, the world’s largest producer, Malaysia and Thailand, he said.
Even the crumbs are valuable; Le sells leftover bits of nests to beverage companies in Vietnam.
It is one of the world’s most expensive foods, observed Massimo Marcone, an associate professor of food science at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. As a result, a counterfeit market has sprung up, prompting him to develop a chemical process to verify the authenticity of nests.
“For thousands of years it has been eaten,” said Marcone, who has visited nest vendors across Asia. “It’s 60, 70 percent protein, so it was good nutrition for the emperor. You had the aristocracy and members of the court who wanted to mimic what the royals did. And it went all the way down the line so that people who could afford it, even commoners, would consume them.”
Until recently, harvesting the nests involved the dangerous work of retrieving them from caves, where the swiftlets, like bats, cling to high rock ceilings and weave palm-sized nests before laying eggs.
The harvesting process often results in the destruction of eggs or chicks and threatens the bird population, said Le, who uses a safer method. His company builds four-story concrete structures designed to attract swiftlets, which create nests on planks of wood or thick plastic beams attached to the ceilings. Workers retrieve the nests only after eggs have hatched and chicks have flown away.
Le, 28, said he was the first to promote the procedure in Vietnam. He manages about 500 structures across the country, both for his own retail and wholesale business and for investors. He also sells the equipment needed to construct a birdhouse.
His business is an environmentally friendly one, Le said, because it provides diners with nests while protecting the birds and the beneficial role they play in eating insects. Swiftlets, which rely on sonar, fly in and out of the nesting structures in search of insects that are harmful for local crops. “It’s good for nature,” Le said. “It’s good for agriculture in Vietnam. And it’s a sustainable business.”
Le entices birds to the buildings by playing amplified recordings of the birds’ chirps. He also coats the buildings with swiftlet feces to make them feel at home. He sets the building’s temperature at 82 degrees and humidity at 90 percent — ideal conditions for the birds.
“To them, it’s like a cave,” he said. “The birds need a safe place where they have the right temperature, the right humidity, the right light. And then they nest.”
The buildings are monitored 24 hours a day by workers and video cameras. Le can watch the birds in each of his buildings through a video stream on his iPhone
At his Ho Chi Minh City headquarters, dozens of female workers, faces covered with masks, use tweezer-like tools to pick bird feathers out of delicate nests. It can take an hour or more to clean just one. Bits of the yellowish nests are then sifted out of the specks of plucked feathers — a tedious but highly lucrative assembly line. The nests are treated with a cleansing chemical and heating process to kill bacteria before being packaged in elegant lacquer boxes with prices starting at $3,000.
Le sells his nests in a handful of his own store-restaurants around Ho Chi Minh City. Customers can buy individual boxes or eat a prepared meal in each outlet. The bird’s nest soup is served with dim sum and tea. The meals, which include only a tiny portion of nest, sell for as much as $26 each.
Tang Hong Chau, who owns a medical equipment company, visits Le’s store or that of a competitor regularly to have a bowl of soup.
The meal is good for his health, he said, before tucking into a bowl of nest soup. “I feel very strong in my body. I always sleep very well.”
Another customer, Chi Tran Thi Bang Phuong, said she buys the nests for herself and baby during the winter months to ward off illness: “My body feels better when I eat it.”
In fact, Marcone said bird’s nest contains a type of protein that prevents bacteria from growing. “It doesn’t kill bacteria, but stops its proliferation or growth,” he said.
Some Vietnamese, though, attribute mystical powers to the nests, including giving women youthful bodies for decades.
“Women come here and they tell me they are 55, but I don’t believe it. They look very young — beauties,” said Tuong Vi, a supervisor at one of Le’s stores. “They have been eating them since their childhood.”
H.G. Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce in San Jose, said she recently prepared bird’s nest for her mother, who was dying of cancer and grew up eating it.
“I had to cook it for eight hours,” she said of her special recipe, the ultimate comfort food for her mom. “Then you put it inside papaya and you steam the papaya. So the taste is sweet. My mom was very happy. It gave her comfort. It’s very expensive. But it’s worth it.”
Contact John Boudreau at 408-278-3496.
Food for Kings and Queens
Edible nests produced by swiftlets, a small Asian bird that builds its nests from its saliva, were once the delicacies of Chinese royalty and still command high prices. The rarest and most expensive, which sell for as much as $10,000 per kilogram, are red and are found on rocks that have high iron content, according to bird’s nest expert Massimo Marcone, an associate professor of food science at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. White or yellow nests sell for about $1,000 per kilogram, he said. A small birdhouse can generate revenue of $10,000 a month.
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