Written by Yu-An Kuo (郭育安), Translated by Sam Robbins
Image credit: Photo provided by author
In Taiwan, the food known as “燕窩” (edible bird’s nest) isn’t too foreign to us. You can find it hiding in the Chinese medicine shops, on Dihua Street in Taipei, in Chinese period dramas, or even in the gift boxes we respectfully prepare for our elders. Edible bird’s nest has long been seen as a deeply nutritious yet fancy, old-school and expensive health food. In Taiwan, it is often associated as a gendered food used to help women maintain their looks and health. It is estimated that the output value of domestic bird’s nest product consumption in 2019 reached around 900 million NTD, which represents a 10% increase from 2018. Despite being an old-school product, demand is on the rise in Taiwan. It is also almost always prepared as a gift, and the industry in Taiwan centres around using marketing to sell the product for as high as price as possible. The common forms of birds nest found in gift boxes include drinks stored in glass containers that can be directly drunk, or uncooked but processed birds nest sold at Dihua street. Indeed, because of Covid-19, the sale of untreated birds nest (and other untreated animal products in Taiwan) has faced increased regulation and restriction.
Edible birds nest is part of Taiwan’s culinary landscape and it is not considered a foreign food. But edible birds nest is not produced in Taiwan. Taiwanese people are often thus unaware of its production, which takes place outside Taiwan. In fact, many in Taiwan often assume that the native barn swallow (家燕) is the source of edible birds nest, when in fact it is only the nests of swiftlets which can be consumed.
Despite being a common food in Taiwan, Taiwan’s climate makes it unsuitable for cultivating edible birds nest. Consumption of edible birds nest in Taiwan can be traced back over 200 years, but this consumption has always relied on imports. The product’s history in Taiwan is tied to the history of Dihua street in Taipei, which developed towards the end of the Qing dynasty. This street became a main sight for the selling of exported “Chinese goods” (華貨）in Taiwan, including Ginseng, Jujubees, louts seeds and shark fins. Official statistics suggest that Taiwan currently imports over 10 tonnes over birds nest each year, with over 90% being imported from Indonesia. However, this number is likely unreliable since the illegal smuggling of birds nest remains a constant problem in Taiwan.
Why is edible bird’s nest so expensive? How is it even produced, who creates it, and where? Apart from knowing that it is made from the saliva of swiftlets, most Taiwanese people have likely never thought that deeply about this product. I went to George Town in Penang, Malaysia, to uncover the story behind this unusual food we are used to seeing here in Taiwan.
“Where there are ethnically Chinese people (華人), there is edible bird’s nest” was what one of my interviewees, whom I call “Mr N,” told me. He is an ethnically Chinese Malaysian who has been in the edible bird’s nest industry for many years.
China doesn’t produce too many edible bird’s nests, but it is a major product consumer. Production is mostly located across Southeast Asia, and the global edible bird’s nest industry makes 450 million USD in profit annually. Indonesia alone accounts for almost 80% of this profit. Malaysia accounts for 13%, Thailand, 5%, and Vietnam, 2%. Penang, Singapore, and Hong Kong have historically been key locations for the shipment and transporting of the product. Despite being produced there, the Southeast Asian market for bird’s nest consumption shirks compared to China. For example, ethnically Chinese Malaysians construct birdhouses to attract swiftlets and extract their saliva in Malaysia. “It’s 99% ethnically Chinese Malaysians working in the industry here, and 99% of our product is sent to China,” Mr N told me, with perhaps a hint of exaggeration.
How did this large-scale international trade network emerge? There are two popular explanations you can find online about the history of edible bird’s nests. One traces the history back to the famous female empress Wu Zetian (624-705 CE) of the Tang Dynasty, who allegedly consumed edible bird’s nests to keep herself looking young. The other interpretation claims famous explorer Zheng He (1371-1433 CE) of the Ming Dynasty, known for his voyages around Southeast Asia and India and Africa, as the true pioneer of edible bird’s nest consumption. This version of the story states that once – when his ship faced difficult weather conditions during one of their expeditions in the South China seas – they were forced to make a stop on the Malay Archipelago. With their food supplies dwindling, the fleet stumbled across a swallow nest nestled on the wall of a cave and decided to pluck it off, wash it down, and eat it to fill their empty stomachs. The result was so much better than they had expected that Zheng brought back some nests to the Yongle emperor (1360-1424 CE) as a form of court tribute. This story helps explain some nicknames for edible bird’s nest in Chinese that make reference to the court and to tribute, such as 官燕 and 貢燕.
Both these stories make frequent appearances in the marketing of edible bird’s nests. Yet, despite the existence of both these stories, there remains a lack of convincing evidence to confirm once and for all exactly how edible bird’s nest first made its journey from Southeast Asia to China’s dynastic court. What is clear is that edible bird’s nests have long since become a part of Chinese culinary culture and an expensive delicacy. In October of 2013, on an official visit to Malaysia, Chinese Chairman Xi Jinping received an edible bird’s nest as an official gift from then-sultan Abdul Halim of the Kedah Sultanate. After a hundred years of consumption, the air of preciousness and high quality has not faded from our understanding of the edible bird nest. Indeed, edible bird’s nest is no longer simply the spit of swiftlets, and its consumption symbolically reflects high social status.
Airholes but No Windows: The Structure of birdhouses
Edible bird’s nests are made from the salvia that swiftlets use to make their nests. Apart from in coastal caves, swiftlets are also known to make their nests inside human-made buildings.
Swiftlet farming started first in Indonesia, which provided an ideal place for swiftlets to reproduce due to its wealth of coastal caves. Human-made swiftlet farming techniques were also developed there, including the construction of so-called swiftlet birdhouses. These structures already have a history stretching back over one hundred years. The industry had a somewhat of a mysterious start in Indonesia. Swiftlet birdhouses only have air holes and don’t have windows. Only In the 1990s in Sabah and Sarawak in west Malaysia, did a similar birdhouse industry start to emerge, but it was relatively small. Actually, swiftlet farming had existed in coastal caves in East Malaysia, and were traditionally controlled by the indigenous minority, but expansion in West Malaysia started much later. Prior to the development of birdhouse technology that was transferred from Indonesia, the main swiftlet farming activities in Malaysia took place in the caves of East Malaysia. Because the industry in West Malaysia was controlled by the ethnic minority ethnically Chinese Malaysians, and because swiftlets like to make their nests on the cliff faces, the labourers’ work was extremely dangerous. This made the edible bird’s nests from the caves extremely rare and valuable. In addition, some of the nests formed in buildings could be constructed by the birds without anyone actively trying to entice them. Such a lucky accident has attached such nests with an image of good luck and prosperity in Chinese culture.
What is worth noting is how the almost unheard-of construction of purpose-built swiftlet birdhouses in Malaysia suddenly became common practice in the 1990s. Most of these birdhouses were constructed in cities along the coast. They were either located in repurposed old residential structures built before World War Two when Malaysia was a British colony or in new structures purpose-built by industry insiders. So why did a practice that has been around for almost one hundred years in Indonesia only become common in Malaysia in the last two decades?
The Sound Tech that Came Across the Ocean.
The 1997 financial crisis seriously crippled Indonesia’s economy and political system. In May 1998, large-scale Anti-ethnic Chinese racial protests and violence erupted across the country, and some ethnically Chinese Indonesians fled to neighbouring Malaysia for refuge. With the economy in bad shape at the time, the Malaysian real estate market took a big hit. The newly arrived Indonesian business figures brought the technical know-how of swiftlet birdhouse constructions. They collaborated with local Malaysians to buy property and turn the vacant lots into swiftlets birdhouses. Real estate prices in Sitiawan, Perak State, Malaysia, started to noticeably creep up due to such investment at the time. A saying emerged amongst those in the industry “Having a Birdhouse beats having a car or a house (有車有房). If you feed Swiftlets for a while, they’ll feed you for a lifetime.”
This group of pioneering birdhouse builders in Perak State almost all succeeded. Many Malaysian property owners followed the trend and invested in the industry, buying vacant and abandoned lots and turning them into birdhouses. Some even sought assistance from Indonesian industry long-timers to learn the tricks of the trade. These figures would bring their new skills back with them to Malaysia, turning a curious industry once covered in mystery into increasingly well-understood and commonplace business practice. A couple of years later, as China’s economy started to take off, the demand for high-quality edible bird’s nests increased rapidly. The nascent industry emerging amongst Malaysia’s ethnically Chinese communities quickly became seen as a great way to get rich quickly. Before China’s “blood nest” incident in 2011, in which official testing revealed the presence of nitrate at levels 350 times over the recommended limit for human consumption in so-called red “blood bird’s nests,” There were over 100,000 birdhouses across Malaysia. At the same time, “birdhouse experts” started to appear who offered consulting services to industry newcomers.
The difference between the swiftlet industry and other forms of animal husbandry is that swiftlets can’t be reared in an enclosed space the same way pigs or chickens can be. Swiftlet’s habit is to fly out in the morning to find food for their younglings and return to their nest in the evenings. Birdhouses only serve to create an environment reminiscent of cliff faces for swiftlets, and whether the birds decide to frequent the birdhouses is somewhat out of anybody’s control. This is why the success rate of such structures across the whole industry is only around 1/3. The basic requirements for a successful birdhouse include the location, design, and equipment to control the temperature, humidity, exposure to sunlight, airflow, and noise levels. The use of loudspeakers to play sounds that imitate swiftlets is one of the key techniques needed to attract the birds, and it is one of the many ways in which nature and technology interact in the production of edible bird’s nests.
The Bird’s Nest Craze and the Emergence of “Birdhouse Experts.”
With a tremendous amount of profits coming from this burgeoning business, many “birdhouse experts” who offered to solve birdhouse problems for new practitioners popped up. As previously mentioned, the success rate for the average birdhouse is around 1/3, and this number is itself in constant fluctuation. One of the main reasons is that swiftlets are classified as semi-domesticated, semi-wild animals, making it difficult to produce technology that can accurately and successfully attract them. There are many examples of the exact same model of birdhouse being constructed in locations A and B, with location A succeeding and location B failing for no clear reason, which speaks to the difficulty of standardising birdhouse technology. In this case of failure, new practitioners might think that they were fooled by these “experts”. Exactly how “expert” are the so-called “birdhouse experts” mentioned above? It’s actually quite hard to tell for sure. I’ve heard stories from swiftlet farms realising that the sound equipment they received from their expert consultants was a scam only after purchasing it. With all their money blown and their birdhouse constructed, not even a single swiftlet visited them.
Only when those working at the farm consulted another expert did they learn that the sound played on the speakers was playing the sound of swiftlets fighting each other, so nearby birds would fly away in fear as soon as they heard the sound coming from the birdhouse. With all this uncertainty, an industry that was previously based on luck now increasingly relies on knowledge, technology and the careful construction of an environment that can all fall apart if even one link in the chain isn’t working as planned. Thus, many swiftlet farmers are left with nothing after investing everything into their birdhouses that attract no birds.
The Bust After the Boom: China’s “Blood Nest” Incident.
Among the different kinds of edible bird’s nests, rarer red “blood” bird’s nest appeared on the markets. It was rumoured that when swiftlets no longer have the energy to produce the saliva for their nests, they will begin to spit blood until they die of blood loss. The presence of blood makes these bird’s nests rarer and leads many to see them as richer in nutrients , and such nests are thus more valuable. However, according to many news reports and many of my interviewees, the hype and story behind blood bird’s nests have been mostly made up by businesspeople:
The reason that bird’s nests can turn red is just that the birds are living in a dirty environment. Nitrobacter in the bird droppings decomposes the droppings and turns them into nitrite, which dissolves in water. As the water droplets evaporate and touch the bird’s nest, the bird’s nest turn red. Businesspeople only thinking about money have weaved this into a story to generate hype and even use chemicals to dye regular bird’s nests. True “blood bird’s nests” are extremely rare.
The “blood nest incident” caused 90% of the Malaysian edible bird’s nest producers to lose their main market overnight. Moreover, unwashed edible bird’s nests were largely unsellable in Malaysia, leading to a dramatic price crash for edible bird’s nests, with prices dropping to 30% of their former high. As a result, many farmers lost everything, making the situation bleak. However, over the last few years, new strict trade treaties allowed the edible bird’s nest trade to return to Malaysia slowly.
An Industry with Many Faces: Culinary Culture, International Trade, and Human-Animal Management.
Ever since the craze for birdhouse construction hit Malaysia in the 1990s, the industry has been unbalanced. As the blood nest incident took prices from historic highs to historic lows, the Malaysian bird’s nest industry has been monopolised by a couple of groups. This industry is thus one with low success rates, abundant incidents of scams and fraud, replete with frequent complaints launched by residents about birdhouses’ noise and sanity issues. Hence, the controversy surrounding edible bird’s nests and their place in Georgetown’s cultural, where I was doing my fieldwork, heritage has been up for debate. These debates have been places where the boundaries between culture and nature, wild and domesticated, are being debated and redrawn.
Because this industry emerged in Malaysia at such break-neck speeds, the Malaysian government initially lacked many stringent regulations regarding what they saw as an “atypical form of urban animal husbandry.” As controversies surrounding this industry continue to arise. The government of some Malaysian states have begun to produce regulations to manage the raising of swiftlets. As such, the decision as to where to construct a birdhouse is increasingly not just a question of the surrounding environment and its suitability for swiftlets, but also a question of politics and regulations. Even after this winding history of industry setbacks and challenges, consumers are still drawn in by the perpetual charm of edible bird’s nests. I asked Mr N why he continued farming swiftlets even after the price crash, his response: “this industry has been around for centuries. It won’t die away that quickly. Prices are going to rise at some point in the future. Because, where there are ethnically Chinese people (華人), there are edible bird’s nests.”
Yu-An Kuo (郭育安) graduated with a masters degree from National Taiwan University’s Department of Geography and now works as a research assistant at Academia Sinica. She is interested in agrofood systems and the relationships between humans and animals.
This article is part of a special series of translations from “Searching for Taiwan’s Flavour (尋找台灣味”). Each article is an abridged and translated version of a chapter from the book. Find all published articles here, and read the introduction to the special series by the book’s editor here.