Posted by: Sam Olsen | October 29, 2011

Strange Chinese custom of the week 10

Congratulations to Mark Calvert for his first ever victory here. Yes, it was swift nests you saw, for use mainly in soup. (Riccy S – you would have won if you had posted it on here, but rules is rules.) But the best suggestion was from John Bentley: “Fried WWII RAF moustaches”.

Here is the Wikipedia entry for those too lazy to click on the link!

Bird’s nest soup is a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. A few species of swift, the cave swifts, are renowned for building the saliva nests used to produce the unique texture of this soup.

The edible bird’s nests are among the most expensive animal products consumed by humans. The nests have been used in Chinese cooking for over 400 years, most often as bird’s nest soup.

A typical nesting house for swiftlets in Baan Laem, Phetchaburi province, Thailand.The most heavily harvested nests are from the Edible-nest Swiftlet or White-nest Swiftlet (Aerodramus fuciphagus) and the Black-nest Swiftlet (Aerodramus maximus). The white nests and the red nests are supposedly rich in nutrients, which are traditionally believed to provide health benefits, such as aiding digestion, raising libido, improving the voice, alleviating asthma, improving focus, and an overall benefit to the immune system.

The nests are built during the breeding season by the male swiftlet over a period of 35 days. They take the shape of a shallow cup stuck to the cave wall. The nests are composed of interwoven strands of salivary laminae cement. Both nests have high levels of calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium.

Hong Kong and the United States are the largest importers of these nests. In Hong Kong, a bowl of bird’s nest soup would cost $30 USD to $100 USD. A kilogram of white nest can cost up to $2,000 USD, and a kilogram of red nests can cost up to $10,000 USD. The white nests are commonly treated with a red pigment, but methods have been developed to determine an adulterated nest. Natural red cave nests are often only found in limestone caves in bird nest concession island in Thailand.

The nests were formerly harvested from caves, principally the enormous limestone caves at Gomantong and Niah in Borneo. With the escalation in demand these sources have been supplanted since the late 1990s by purpose-built nesting houses, usually reinforced concrete structures following the design of the SE Asian shop-house (“ruko”). These nesting houses are normally found in urban areas near the sea, since the birds have a propensity to flock in such places. This has become an extraordinary industry, mainly based on a series of towns in the Indonesian Province of North Sumatra, which have been completely transformed by the activity. From there the nests are mostly exported to Hong Kong, which has become the centre of the world trade, though most of the final consumers are from mainland China. It has been estimated that the products now account for 0.5% of the Indonesian GDP, equivalent to about a quarter of the country’s fishing industry.

In a sadly ironic twist, this potentially environmentally sustainable industry is contributing to deforestation in Indonesia, notably in the Gunung Palung National Park, West Kalimantan (mid-2011). The swiftlet barns in this area are built from copious quantities of timber (particularly belian and meranti), and legal timber supplies are inadequate to meet demand, which is instead being met by increasing levels of illegal logging in the National Park.

A slight change to this week’s competition. It is not a delicacy we are asking about, but a custom. In Beijing virtually every parked car has boards resting on the wheels, as in the photo below. No one we saw was good enough at English to ask (and my Mandarin lessons bizarrely don’t help in this department). Any idea what on earth the reason for placing these boards there?

Answers below!

Too bored


  1. Dog pee protection:

    • How did you find that?!

  2. it’s to stop dogs pissing on them. two in a row?

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