The tropical heavens of South Asia attract people for their paradisiac sand beaches, crystal clear waters, palm trees and fresh exotic fruits. Others are drawn to South Asia’s alternativism to Western Culture, which includes the local cuisines and traditional medicines. Various renowned local foods may be perceived as ‘bizarre’ if compared to common Western gastronomies. Examples of this are cuisines that use insects, strong spices, atypical culinary recipes, or meat from animals that are not considered edible in most Western countries. Among these is a common delicacy that is found in several Asian countries called the “edible-nest”. It is harvested from the habitat of certain species of the Swiftlet birds, which all belong to the Collocaliini tribe of the Apodidae (Swift) family. What makes this particular type of nest edible and legendary is its unique natural component: the solidified saliva of the male swiftlet that is considered nutritious—containing countless health benefits. These wonderful health benefits are part of ancestral beliefs and have not yet been supported by reliable scientific researches.
The nests are often found in white colour, sometimes in black, and in rare cases in dark red. Despite the total of five species under the Aerodramus genus and the two species under the Collocalia genus that are producing nests mainly with their solidified saliva—the majorities of the white edible-nests are built by the swiftlets species of A. Fuciphagus and A. Germani, and the black-nest is made only by the A. Maximus and A. Unicolor (Sankaran, 1998). As for the red ‘blood’ edible-nests, while there are several beliefs around its red colour, many consider its colour to be the result of blood from the male birds after the excessive rebuilding of their nests over a short period of time. Others confirm that the colour is explained by the phenomenon of oxidation in some of the more humid zones.
The edible-nest is built in many regions by the swiftlet birds. The nest is most frequently found in white colour, although one type is black and another is dark red. It is harvested from its natural habitat in the caves of: Brunei; Cambodia; India; Indonesia; Malaysia; Myanmar; Philippines; Thailand; and Vietnam, or collected from man-made concrete buildings in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and sometimes southern China. There are some finer producers, for example in Vietnam and in Thailand, who are domesticating the swiftlets, slowly raising them from egg-hatching to nest-harvesting season, aiding in maintaining the birds’ population at a sustainable level. It is common to find people consuming those edible-nests as the form of a soup in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. However, the mainland of China, along with Taiwan and Hongkong, remain where the highest number of consumers and importers are found.
The production of edible-nests is a highly lucrative business; one of the most expensive food in the world. Because of this, people are producing fake nests and most of the time buyers cannot tell the difference between a real and a replica. To date, this (illegal) activity has been concentrated in Indonesia and Singapore. The manufacturers can create fake nests by using ingredients such as pig’s skin, Chinese herbs, white fungus, and seaweed. Could it generate impacts on the health of the nest-eaters? Is this ‘fake’ product an alternative to saving the birds’ declining population, at the expense of humans’ health? Once harvested, the nests will be transported to the world’s biggest buyer, China– transiting through and being partly consumed in Hongkong.
Could this traffic soon see a major decrease in its transactions, perhaps by increasing consumers’ awareness on the scientific evidence and on the birds’ unacceptable heavy harvest? Could regulations and policies be established and respected, in order to enforce the surveillance of illegal trafficking at the most susceptible transit points of importing and exporting the edible-nests? Could there be other options from preserving the birds’ population while retaining ancient traditions?
Brief history of the swiftlets’ humanimal relation
For over 48 thousand years, the “Swiftlets” have been recorded in both Indonesian and Malaysian Borneo areas, according to scientific researches and analysis of fossils in the region. Originating in China, data of the nests’ consumption goes back up to 400 years (Sankaran, 1998), when China was importing them from Indonesian archipelago, records of the trade in that area confirm. This is when the nests began to be an important item in Chinese cuisine and pharmacy (Sankaran, 1998). Other authors say that the consumption started a few centuries earlier, dating around 1000-1200 years ago. It is only in the 18th century that the volume of trade increased considerably, and a century later the trade towards mainland China was believed to count about 9 million nests annually (Sankaran, 1998). However, its trading tendency changed for most of the 20th Century after the authoritarian Communist Chairman Mao Zedong publicly declared the bird nest soup was an immoral luxury for communists. This led almost the entire world market to Hongkong until the 1990’s, when Chinese mainlanders started to consume those birds’ nests again. While bird nests consumption in other Asian countries is increasing, Hongkong is still believed to be the most important transit of the nests, importing about a hundred tons every year. Most of those will then be transported or smuggled into the mainland of China (National Geographic news, 2002).With the route being diverted to Hongkong in recent years, the edible-nests are easily smuggled onto Chinese mainland (Lau & Melville,1994).
Although records of trade with India—Andaman & Nicobar Islands—can be traced back to 851 A.D., the earliest reference found of nests’ trade with the Islands is from the late 17th and 18th century (Sankaran, 1998). This shows that not only Indonesia, but also India has been an important player in the history of the trade of edible-nests. In China, the main consumers for centuries would have been emperors and some Chinese elites of that era. Edible-nests were mainly eaten as a soup. According to some experts, China has now overtaken Hongkong as Indonesia’s main export market and this would explain the numerous concrete birdhouses that have been erected throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and most recently Cambodia (BBC news, 2011). The birds’ nests are now presented to consumers in various different forms, offering an interesting range of products for health and beauty purposes.
“If it were not for a fascinating biological quirk, that of building their nests entirely out of saliva, the Edible-nest Swiftlets of the genus Collocalia [(now moved under the genus Aerodramus)] would not have been threatened today.” (Sankaran, 1998).
The domestication of swiftlets was passively initiated in Indonesia around 1800s. At the time, having a swiftlet as a housemate was almost considered as luck. Consequently, the farming of swiftlets saw a significant progress in the 1950s, with farmers making noteworthy efforts to develop more efficient farming techniques. It is only post 1990 that the rapid development of swiftlets farming initiated, first in Java then in Sumatra, Bali, Kalimantan, Sangihe and Sulawesi (Sankaran, 1998). “The Edible-nest Swiftlet in Indonesia is the most significant semi-domestication to have happened to mankind in the 20thcentury.” (Sankaran, 1998). Historically, the swiftlets have been living alone for thousands of years in the wild, so what does it mean for them to relocate into concrete buildings? Can humans and birds coexist without negatively impacting on each other’s lifestyle and health?
The edible-nest has been long used for its health benefits, and is still being consumed on a regular basis, in different culinary forms. There are ancestral traditions that push humans to ingest edible-nests. The semi-domestication of Swiftlet birds in a man-made habitat started few centuries back, though, it is only less than 30 years ago that the farming situation began to expand with a rapid growth in South Asian and South East Asian countries. The domestication of the swiftlet birds is to offer a wider range of nest products to the edible-nest lovers, though these products are mainly sold on a Chinese market. Many questions can be raised when considering the consumption of a bird’s nest. Some of the questions could be answered by looking at the nests’ etymology and sub-categories, while others may require a deeper look into its trade, regulations and consumption habits.
By Jacynthe Cauvier