Bird’s Nests – The Most Expensive Local Ingredient?


I always knew that the limestone mountains and cliffs in Northern Palawan were the home to swiftlets (collocalia whiteheadi) or birds that made their nests that are unfortunately (for the birds), a delicacy for mainly Chinese diners. On a trip to El Nido two years ago, I was told that the name El Nido meant Bird’s Nest… At any rate, I was under the mistaken impression until recently that you had to scale the razor sharp cliffs to find little crevices where the birds would nest…it turns out the nests are mostly in bigger, darker, slippery caves instead, not on the cliff faces. This post is something the Food Gods absolutely divined, for how on earth could I have chanced upon a native who would not only give me a crash course in bird’s nest, but also happen to have a few on hand for me to photograph?! While on the fantastic small strip of sand at Banol Beach, and burning up in the hot sun, an older lady approached to collect the “fee” for using the beach…after we paid, she sat down in the hut to avoid the sun we started to chit-chat…

Turns out she is a Tagbanuan, and has lived on the island since birth as have her forefathers and ancestors… She explained that there used to be so nest2much more bird’s nests in the mountains but that the supply had rapidly declined. When pressed for her view of the situation, Manang Herminia Aguilar believed the culprit is cyanide fishing. She felt that the birds, called Balinsasayaw locally, which she said “ate” the bubbles on the surface of the sea, which were contaminated with traces of cyanide (which is used on fish and which kill off coral) and the result was the poisoning of the birds. Some research suggests two views of the material that makes the bird’s nests. One view is that the birds eat seaweed such as agar-agar and regurgitate this when they get back to their nests as they build them. Another view is that they simply use their saliva. At any rate, the “prized” delicacy is reputed to be good for one’s blood circulation or other medical rationale, so it is highly sought after. Of course my suggestion that natives simply stripping the caves of all nests might lead to a lack of bedding for new born chicks wasn’t considered a reasonable explanation. It seems they are supposed to limit their collection of nests to only January to April, though everyone says that rule is flaunted…

After several minutes of discussion, I asked her if I could find some bird’s nests to photograph for this blog and lo and behold, she whips out these two small bundles from her cloth bag. Carefully wrapped in a soft cloth, she gently took them out to show me. She nest3explained that many people had died over the years trying to harvest these nests as the conditions in the caves are treacherous. She pointed out that she had two bundles classified by quality. The first bundle of noticeably whiter nests was Class A and was sold to traders from Manila for a whopping, hold your seats, PHP200,000 a KILO!!! Omigod is all I could think. This little bundle was about 20 grams or PHP4,000 pesos worth! The second bundle was Class C because of its color and the foreign matter embedded in the nests, this would retail for a much less shocking PHP120,000 a kilo and her bundle here of roughly 25 grams would garner PHP3,000 from the traders. So, in the photos here are roughly PHP7,000 pesos worth of dried saliva; now if only dried buggers were so highly valued as a flavoring agent for some special dish…ugh, that was a gross thought Marketman!

Sensitive to light, Manang Herminia did not want these freshly harvested nests to be exposed to light as they would discolor and as soon as I clicked my photos, nest4she wrapped them back up again. And for those of you impressed by numbers, my rapid calculations place these nests among the MOST EXPENSIVE INGREDIENTS on the planet, period! The finest beluga caviar at its source in Kazakhstan might run you just USD 50 cents a gram (USD500 a kilo at the source, as much as USD5,000 by the time it reaches the West), while the best saffron, often touted as the most expensive spice on the planet, might run about USD1 per gram at the source in Iran or elsewhere, and the finest truffles may range from USD2-4 per gram at their source in Italy or France. These nests, of top quality will already command USD4-5 per gram right at the foot of the mountains from which they were collected…shocking! However, I must end this post with a comment that I will never ever again eat bird’s nest soup. The swiftlets are endangered, and the thought of robbing them of their cozy nests is not something I can stomach. The same feeling goes for Shark’s fin soup, as I have seen bulk processors of this delicacy in Indonesia and that experience also meant I cannot, in all conscience, eat a bowl of gelatinous, stringy shark’s fin. And since the sturgeon that yields beluga caviar is also now on the endangered species list, I will refrain from consuming any of that as well (not that I get a chance to do that too often at all). While I learned a lot from Manang Herminia, I learned more the importance of preserving the dwindling swiftlets…


37 Responses

  1. oh sure it is the most expensive. . . one of my titas is working in a bank and some of their chinese clients withdraw money just to buy some birds nest. . . . i wonder how it tastes like. . .

  2. I feel the same way about eating endangered animals (or anything sourced from endangered animals). I always say I’ll eat anything (i.e. “extreme foods” like snake’s blood, monkey’s brains, etc) … all things endangered.

    I’m even trying to cut down on unethicaly grown meat (i.e. chickens, pork, beef grown under inhumane circumstances) but that’s another uphill battle, and another story for another day.

  3. Very informative…thank you! Yes, I join you in not eating endangered things or animals. Imagine a finless shark or a chick without a nest. How can we humans be so cruel!

  4. Collecting shark’s fins is one of the most cruel things humas do to animals. I saw a docu once that showed fishermen catching the sharks, cutting off their fins and throwing the sharks, while still alive, back in the water to die. So, please,please, please people, NEVER eat shark’s fin soup or dumplings ever again!!!

    Same goes for bird’s nests, sun bear bile, etc.

    Thanks MM, for bringing this to the attention of readers.

  5. I too wonder what this tastes like, but that’s it. Not only are they endangered, but what people pay for them is utterly ridiculous. I know it’s their money, but the Social Weather Station reports that a record 3.4 million Philippine households claim they experienced starvation in the past three months.

  6. MM, I know I’ve said this several times before (though maybe on other blogs?), but please also add the fish called “Chilean Sea Bass” to your list. I know it’s delicious, but it’s terribly overfished and in danger of extinction. Yet it is still a very common menu item — probably more so than Bird’s Nest Soup, outside of Chinese restaurants. Like Wysgal, I’ll eat most “extreme” foods, but exterminating a species from the planet is quite another matter. Chris of Gourdo’s once mentioned in one of his posts that he tried to take Chilean Sea Bass off the menu but couldn’t because of its popularity. So it’s really up to the diners to STOP ordering it and demand for restaurants to stop stocking it. It worked for the Mameng fish, why not others? As the WWF slogan says, “If you stop the buying, you stop the killing.”

  7. Am I the only person who thinks bird’s nest is just like chewy sotanghon? Had it once, nothing special, which makes it even more difficult for me to understand why people pay so much for something that threatens the existence of an entire species.

    There’s pending legislation here in the US about banning foie gras because the ducks are raised unhumanely, force fed everyday with metal spouts shoved down their throats until their livers swell to 10X their normal size. It’s been removed from menus across the country.

    Okay, so ducks are not endangered species, just wanted to know what my fellow foodies think about this! if you say yes to the banning, then following that logic, must we also give up kobe beef and veal?

  8. Myra, the foie discussion was covered in a recent post on foie gras several weeks ago…the jury is out on the force feeding… I have to admit I am a bit put out by the concept, but I am a fence sitter on this…I like foie too much, and as you say, they aren’t endangered, but we are being a bit inhuman, in the same way that commercial chickens are blinded so they don’t peck each other in close quarters, or cows are stunned before they are slaughtered…

  9. I’ve been anti-shark fin soup since I started diving, and the details of how fishermen massacre schools of sharks (especially the beautiful hammerheads, colonies of them in Bohol gone after a terrible poaching incident in the 90’s), dumping their bodies back into the water to drown, it’s horrific. Makes you want to get those fishermen and anyone who pays to eat sharks fin, cut out their lungs and ask them how they feel. Ugh, sorry, it gets me riled up.

    Both bird’s nest and sharks fin have so little flavor, mostly texture if anything. But the supposed aphrodisiac/curative properties given to these ingredients by chinese and oriental cuisine and the increasing number of chinese with the money to try them is a reason why these ingredients are in demand. An NYTimes article speculated that over 95% of the indigenous hammerheads and sharks in the eastern coastline of the US has been killed for the chinese market. This has meant an increase of the rays in the area, deciminating (spelling?) the oysters and clam population, affecting fishermen whose livelihoods have been based on the shellfish/mollusk growth in N. Carolina and around those areas. Now, they’re panicking. I don’t think they can easily replicate the successful reinstatement of sharks in the wild as they did with grey wolves in the rockies. A lot harder to replicate shark babies in a tank.

  10. hi marketman! about the bird’s nest, my grandma keeps telling us how healthy it is and cooked it almost regularly (once every few months) when we were kids (around 10-15 years ago). up to a few years ago she used to cook some whenever she heard one of us got sick. so the price is more for its perceived medicinal value (according to folklore i guess, haven’t read any studies on it yet) rather than as a gastronomical treat. truth to tell, the description ‘chewy sotanghon’ could pretty much sum up its taste. or something like chewy gelatin strands. grandma cooks it with these umm… sweet crystals(?) that they sell in chinese stores, and something that looks like cherries.

    OT: (quote)…or cows are stunned before they are slaughtered… isn’t it actually more humane to stun them before slaughtering them anyway? =)

  11. Hi MM!
    Are shark’s fin dumplings really made out of shark’s fins? or are thye named so because they look like shark fins? Kasi I like eating these dumplings eh. Just asking.

  12. Dodi, I think in theory they must have some strands of shark’s fin in them, but there are some pretenders/ substitutes sometimes though I am not sure what they are. The texture of shark’s fin and bird’s nest is the only thing going for it and it is not very tasty…so I think I can easily give these ingredients up… Jome, yes, I think many folks think the bird’s nest has curatice powers, but I think we may have to evolve to paracetamol… And yes, now that you mention it, stunning the cows (though I understand it is a major electrical shock so the muscles don’t tense) might be more humane, ultimately. Mila, I once visited a client of a consulting client in Surabaya. The largest shark’s fin exporter in Western Indonesia. When I saw their warehouse with thousands of fresh shark’s fins, ready to be dried and processed and smelling GODAWFUL, I nearly fainted. I swore then I would never eat the soup again. Too bad it wasn’t my place to pull the loans to that firm…

  13. Oh no. When I was a kid, I enjoyed Chinese food nights with my dad and siblings because we always had shark’s fin soup. Later, they said we can’t eat this because it was cruel to sharks. We switched to bird’s nest soup. Now we can’t eat that either. Boo hoo hoo. But I agree with you so goodbye delicious bird’s nest!

    OT: Congratulations MM! I voted for you too so I am very happy to know that you won the Bloggers’ Choice award. :)

  14. the same way the marketman is with foie gras, so too am i with chilean seabass. as katrina points out above, the issue here is overfishing, not cruelty. baka kasi kayo malito na kayo. and just to clarify, there IS an allowed commercial fishing quantity for this beloved fish. it’s the unregulated and illegal fishing that is the problem.

  15. both shark’s fin and bird’s nest are tasteless, and are prized for their texture, aside from theri reputed medicinal value. but jome is right, the texture is very similar to that of chewy sotanghon. chinese cuisine has several ingredients that are tasteless but are prized their texture: tofu, water chestnuts, lotus root, white fungus, pork tendons (litid), jellyfish, etc.

    chark’s fin dumplings are so-called only because they are crimped (pleated) on top after they are folded. the crimped part is supposed to make the dumpling look like a shark’s fin.

  16. Yes, I agree poor little birds with no nests. I hope they harvest old nests instead of throwing away the baby birds to get them. My young cousin (20 y/o) was given some expensive Chinese medicine made from these nests. I don’t know if it helped her a bit (as in abate some symptoms) as her malignant cancer eventually caused her death.

  17. There are responsible harvesters of bird’s nests out there who carry out their activities only after the nests have been used. But of course, when you’re looking at two bird’s nests, it is virtually impossible to tell which one’s legit and which one isn’t.

  18. If there is market for it and the price is high, there will always be poachers. Here in the bay area the Sea Urchins were also getting over harvested and poachers getting caught face huge amounts of fines and jailtime, but that doesn’t stop them, cause the market for these highly priced delicacy in Japan is outrageous. I would just say as a consumer, i would first ask myself why any of these edibles are expensive in the first place…and if i find out the reason for it as being endangered or overfished, etc, then i would stop buying.

  19. Thank you, thank you, thank you for ending your post with a vow not to eat sharkfin and bird’s nest. Completely agree that it would be hard to stomach eating an endagered species or something that contributes to their demise. I mean there are so many other good things to eat. We really could spare species especially if consuming will drive them to extinction.

    People say that it’s ridiculous for me to avoid eating shark’s fin soup when the food is already there — luto na, patay an ang shark. Pero I say, how else do you stop it? By trying your little bit to influence the demand (drive it down). Every little bit counts.

    Now I am an even bigger fan of yours. Mabuhay ka Marketman!


    Now you see how we really feel about what you’re doing. More power to you and the team… I’m still trying to see you among the winners from the winners group photo!

  21. Re: your resolution. That’s good news! The more people decide not to eat shark fin soup, the better. I stopped eating this soup when I saw on TV how the nests are gathered.

    Same with a caviar. It is hard to believe that sturgeon could ever be considered to be “endangered”– but that’s economics for you: law of supply and demand. Although it costs an arm and leg to buy a can of caviar in the the West, spparently in Russia, one can still buy a can at a fairly reasonable price. Someone I know visited Russia and came back with a can for me. It’s been sitting in my freezer for almost a year now, it’s probably not worth eating anymore. One of these days, I’ll try to make “zasuski” – supposedly a Russian appetizer. Have you ever tried preparing this appetizer?

    Per Jule, I will now include “chilean bass” in my “don’t buy” list, although I’ve never really seen this fish in the stores I frequent. Thank goodness, as I like “bass”.

  22. We used to enjoy bird’s nest and shark’s fin soup when I was little. Later my dad suddenly stopped ordering them and telling us that we were just being fooled – that those strands in the soup were nothing but kundol (ano ba ito sa English?). We did find out later that he was spare us kids the awful truth about how they get the fins but he did tell us that the nest were made from saliva and that was all it took. Never had them since.

  23. Kulasa and Ted, kundol is winter melon in English. It is the ingredient in that fancy soup called “Winter Melon Soup” with ham… I think I have a post on kundol in my archives. Very low price in the Philippines where it is common. I even have a shrimp, ham and kundol soup in the archives that was excellent and easy to make…

  24. Thanks MM. Somebody told me the english name but it really escaped me yesterday. Must be a sign I need to start drinking those “memory gap” enhancer drinks.. I now recall how I learned about it. A friend hosted dinner at a fancy restaurant and ordered it – at a price I may say since we didn’t (luckily I wasn’t paying). When it arrived, my companion had a good time teasing him the whole evening how he was ripped off! I even had tried a dessert version, hot soup but sweet. Amazing what a name can do for a price of a dish.

  25. Great write up. We’ve all been guilty of over-consumerism (is that a word?) which is resulting in our resources being depleted. Chilean seabass was banned several years ago (around 2000) in California menus when it became apparent they were being overfished. I was surprised when I started seeing it again in menus in Las Vegas and other cities (including CA cities) in recent years. In fact, when I had my wedding in Makati in October, we served seabass. There actually is a difference and there are several types of seabass, and there might be some mis-identification going on. I would not have served the endangered variety. I think there was a debate as to whether or not Chilean seabass are indeed endangered, but at the rate that all kinds of food sources are being consumed without thought of re-stocking or the consequences, I wouldn’t be surprised it they will be soon if not already.

    It’s sad how the attitude of “it’s not our problem” can cause the ripple effect which can lead to extinction or depletion. If we can each take a stand and realize the power of one person and the choices we make, we can preserve our resources so that many, many, many more generations can enjoy what we have now.

  26. The last time I had a grilled Chilean sea bass was some two years ago in my favorite local seafood resto here in the SF Bayarea. And even back then, I could understand why people loved it so much. It’s almost ‘melt-in-your-mouth’ taste is just out of this world. It’s a cold-water fish so it’s got so much fat on it’s skin … you could actually hear it sizzle on the hot grill as they get cooked. Okay, enough with the visuals here … :)

    I did give up on it since then as I’ve become more aware of its precarious and threatened existence. From what I could gather, this fish has a slow growth rate. The females may take up to ten years to reach sexual maturity, thereby potentially hampering the flock’s recovery once the stock has been depleted.

    I still see them large filets of sea bass at the local asian stores though. And they’re not cheap … but yeah, they’re still selling them around here. As for my favorite seafood resto, I’ve yet to re-visit them to find out if they still carry the item. I’m thinking the boycott is probably still in effect.

  27. I’ve always wondered about this so please fill me in. Nido soup is the same as bird’s nest soup, right? If it’s so expensive, how come Knorr sells them at fairly low prices? If the “bird’s nest” that Knorr uses isn’t the real thing, then I have yet to taste the real “bird’s nest”. hehe

  28. benj, I can’t imagine that an instant knorr soup would have much of the real thing in it at all…it is just way too expensive to have in a modestly priced preparation…

  29. heyy!!!i wonder if you can help me get a buyer of birds nets.plss..plsss..plsss–marketman

  30. Hi, just surfing and decide to search more about this tiny birds. just curios coz i have them in my place for few years now in in bsement. our house is not done yet dats why .I love to see dem flying in n out of the house. their sounds is my music. A magical feeling i would say being able to witness them how they live nd build thier nest, lay their eggs and being able to hold them in my hands, the cute tiny birds with their unopened eyes, pink color and featherless, so delicate nd innocent. having them at home gives me a sense healing just by witnessing them so closely. Watching them how dey patiently build der nest, gain my respect for these little ones. More or less i have around 200 nests and more or less 500 birds lately. Maybe more than a thousand if my not for my gourmet mother and daughter cats discovered them where they live and gradually consume them for more than a year. thank god my husband decided to send our lovely cats to our parents . my problem will be , how to keep them at home when our house will have complet windows and we, living together. We plan though of having one or two basement window wth grills for their access in getting in and out without entering in our living area. Thanks for the information. God bless you.

  31. There are also socio-political issues surrounding these very expensive bird nests…The “cave nests” are traditionally harvested from high up on cave walls. There is a tremendous risk to the collectors who stand on bamboo scaffolding that is sometimes hundreds of feet tall and centuries old. Over the past years, the demand, the price, and the overexploitation of these nests have increased parallel to the increased of deaths in the process of harvests due to the risks involved in harvesting the latter. Sad really.

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