In some Asian cultures, bird’s nest soup is not only a delicacy but a medicinal concoction, believed to aid digestion, strengthen the immune system and — perhaps its biggest selling point — increase libido. You might think that there must be some magical dried leaves and twigs in those nests to have such a power, but think again. These nests are actually made out of bird saliva, which has dried and hardened. That’s right; when you’re eating a bowl of bird’s nest soup, you’re having a bowl of spit (and other ingredients).
It’s not as disgusting as it sounds — or perhaps it is — but either way, bird’s nest soup is not without its frowned-upon opinions. These nests of spittle are created by swiftlets — little birds indigenous to Southeast Asia that dwell in caves — and taking them out of the wild harms the species’ livelihood, much to the chagrin of conservationists. Of course, that doesn’t stop people from foraging for them. The demand for bird-nest dishes in places like Hong Kong outweighs the supply, which results in a high market price: a pound of these bird nests fetches over $4,500 (USD), depending on the nest’s quality.
Bird’s nest soup is also a delicacy in the Philippine province of Palawan, specifically in the northern town of El Nido, which aptly translates to “the nest.” It was there in this laid-back beach-resort town that I was curious to sample the controversial soup — sort of a “when in Rome” moment. To my surprise, only a few of the dozens of restaurants in El Nido actually served bird’s nest soup. Most Filipinos don’t eat it; it’s mainly a dish they prepare for curious tourists who’ve likely heard about it from Zimmern or Bourdain. Local restaurants might not even prepare it at all if not for the main ingredient being conveniently “local”; surrounding El Nido and the nearby islands of Bacuit Bay are hundreds of limestone rock formations, where daring Filipino climbers ascend sharp cliff sides to harvest the nests from caves high above.
Pieces of the nest are stored in a cool, dry place, but then are soaked in cold water overnight before they are stewed with chicken stock and a little cornstarch. The result is a thick and hearty soup that looks, tastes and feels like egg drop soup from a Chinese takeout joint, only with soft bits of nest pieces (that don’t require much effort to chew) in lieu of egg. The thickness of the soup might suggest that the base is actually saliva, but when you realize that’s just the cornstarch in the stock, it mentally goes down easier. In fact, it goes down really easy because, to my surprise, it actually tasted quite good — minus that aftertaste of guilt for having stolen a bird’s home to enjoy it.
Final Verdict: 2 (out of 5) stars. It wasn’t the best soup I’ve ever had, but it wasn’t disgusting. It feels and tastes like a basic chicken soup with minimal ingredients that you could easily make yourself — unless you’re keen on buying into the medicinal properties of bird nests. (Personally, I didn’t feel like I had any more mojo after eating it.) If you have the means, you could go to Palawan or Hong Kong to taste for yourself — or you could just take my word for it, and try to let the swiftlets live in peace.
Erik Trinidad is a food and travel writer, and author of Fancy Fast Food: Ironic Recipes with No Bun Intended, based off his popular food humor blog.