A step-by-step guide to cooking the edible bird’s nest, to maximize nutrition and achieve great taste.
When you open the menu of a big restaurant in China, chances are you’ll come across a small section listing extremely expensive dishes with exquisite names. For example, bird’s nest soup, shark fin stew, and braised sea cucumber. These dishes can cost hundreds of dollars for a small bowl. They may look very plain, like a regular bowl of chicken soup.
Today I want to take you on a tour to a lesser-known part of Chinese cuisine. Introducing one of the most popular food items for female beauty – Chinese bird’s nest.
What is Chinese bird’s nest
Chinese bird’s nest, or yàn wō (燕窝), is is one of the most expensive foods in the world, with a price of up to $2000 per kilogram (according to Wikipedia). The nests are made of the hardened saliva of the male swiftlet, a type of swallow found in many coastal caves of Southeast Asia.
Sounds super weird right?
Well, the cooked nest is almost tasteless and has the texture of jelly. It is often served sweetened and has quite a refreshing taste. When I cooked the nest for the first time in my US home, my husband thought it was super weird. But once he tasted the sweet soup, he actually enjoyed it and drank it all.
The culinary and traditional Chinese medicinal (TCM) use of edible swallow nest dates hundreds of years back, as a highly nutritious therapeutic supplement and a delicacy in Chinese cuisine.
Due to the extremely high protein content (about 70%), namely collagen, bird’s nest is prized by females for its ability to improve skin condition and release stress. So they will keep the last of their youth, as well as have a long and healthy life and a strong body. It has neutral energetic properties in TCM (not too cold or too warm), so it benefits people of all ages and is especially good for the lungs, kidneys, and stomach.
Moreover, eating swallow nest is regarded as a privilege in China. It’s a luxury like shark fin. In ancient times, only the emperor and nobles had access to it. So it’s a symbol of social status and wealth.
Lastly, the value of bird’s nest is high due to its rarity. When people are in a business meeting in a restaurant (as is Chinese tradition), they order precious items such as bird’s nest in order to display their sincerity. It is just like ordering an expensive bottle of wine in the Western world.
How to prepare and cook with edible bird’s nest
Edible bird’s nests come in different colors, ranging from white to dark brown, depending on the grading and the type of bird. When you purchase bird’s nest, always try to buy from reputable brands to make sure you’re getting a quality product.
Preparing bird’s nest might look intimidating if you’ve never cooked with it before, since most products don’t usually come with instructions on the package. In reality it is extremely easy and requires just a few simple steps:
(1) Decide how much to serve.
Bird’s nest is preserved dry and it stays good for a month in the fridge once you open the package. It is important to decide how much you’re going to serve before preparing the nest, to ensure maximum freshness.
When you purchase bird’s nest, the nest usually comes in pieces and the package tells you how many servings it contains. For example, the bird’s nest I used said 1 ounce (28 grams) serves 4 people. It is a good serving size if you’re serving the nest restaurant style. If you’re using it for nutritional purposes and will consume it frequently (once or twice a week), you can serve smaller portions, about 1 ounce (28 grams) for 8 servings.
(2) Soak the edible bird’s nest with cold water, for at least 6 hours or overnight.
This step is very important. Do NOT use warm or hot water to soak the nest because it might destroy the delicate texture. Once the nest is fully hydrated, it expands a few times larger and has a slightly tough gelatinous texture. Use your hands to tear it into smaller pieces along the threads. Try to do it without breaking the threads so the finished nest will have a better texture.
When you’re soaking the nest you might notice a fishy smell. Don’t worry about it. The fishiness will disappear once the nest is cooked.
(3) Cook the nest using a double boiler.
Although bird’s nest can be served either sweet or savory, most people prefer to serve it sweet, as a dessert. To enjoy the bird’s nest, you should use minimal seasoning, just enough to eliminate the fishiness from the nest without masking its flavor.
Using a double boiler will preserve the most nutrition and ensure the nest is fully cooked and tender, without turning it into mush and melting it into the soup.
My favorite method is to cook the nest with Asian pear. The pear will magically eliminate all the fishiness from the nest and impart a refreshing sweet aroma. To make the appearance fancier, I carved the pears into small bowls and cooked the nest with a bit of water and goji berries. If you want an easier version, simply chop the pears into small pieces and add them into a bowl with the nest.
There are many ways to cook the nest, such as with different types of fruits and Chinese Goji. Once cooked, the nest has a light gelatinous texture that is tender and transparent. Serve the nest cold with syrup and milk, with more fruits if desired.
In the recipe below I teach you two of my favorite ways of cooking bird’s nest – Asian pear with rock sugar, and coconut milk with papaya.