Chinese Bird’s Nest Soup Recipe
Bird’s Nest Soup 燕窝 is one of the most luxurious and expensive delicacies in Chinese cuisine. The shallow cup-shaped nest that hang from the sides of caves takes the swiftlet bird over 30 days to build. For hundreds of years, bird’s nest soup has been prized for its health benefits, especially increasing libido.
For the price of $100 per serving at some restaurants, you might expect the most delicious experience. In fact, the bird’s nest has very little flavor on it’s own, and its gelatinous texture might be forgettable. But what you’re buying is rarity and centuries of tradition, culture and perhaps superstition.
I’ve only had Chinese Bird’s Nest Soup a few times, the last time was about 10 years ago in Hong Kong. U.S. based Golden Nest company sent 1 ounce of their AAA grade (retail $105) bird’s nest to cook.
I recruited Mom to help me, as I’ve never cooked with such an expensive ingredient before! Mom called her sister, in Hong Kong, for a recipe.
For premium, high quality bird’s nest, the simpler and cleaner the recipe, the better. “According to the Qing Dynasty manual of gastronomy, the Suiyuan shidan, bird nest was a delicate ingredient that must not be flavoured or cooked with anything strong tasting or oily.” (source)
Quality of Bird’s Nest is Important
One of Mom’s cookbooks talks extensively about bird’s nest. There are different grades of nests, the blackish nest near the top is the lowest quality (see all the feathers?), and the spongy looking nest (middle, top), is a lesser quality, the kind that many restaurants will use but will doctor up the soup with many other ingredients.
Golden Nest’s bird’s nest resembles the bottom left photo. Perfectly formed, white, with no impurities.
Protecting the Swiflets is Important
Any animal product that is high highly prized and can fetch a large sum of money needs to be tightly regulated, to protect the animal. Reputable companies will wait for the swiftlet to lay their eggs, and for the birds to hatch prior to harvesting the nest. The industry is highly regulated and taxed. The problem is poachers, illegal harvesting and illegal export of bird’s nests. Only purchase bird’s nests from reputable companies. Golden Nest is based in the California, and you can look up their Better Business Bureau rating online.
How to make Bird’s Nest Soup
Because of the extreme high quality of the bird’s nest, we opted for a pleasantly sweet soup with only 3 ingredients: bird’s nest, red date (jujube) and rock sugar.
Jujube – Dried Red Dates
Dried jujube is considered a Chinese superfood for their health benefits. You’ll often find these dates in traditional Chinese herbal concoctions, soups and braised dishes. Jujube has 80x the vitamin C than grapes and apples, and they are said to “stimulate the production of white blood cells, which improves immunity, and decrease the levels of cholesterol in your bloodstream, which helps protect the liver” (source)
The taste is sweet.
Rock sugar is used often in Chinese cooking – they are golden, irregular clumps of sugar. Its taste is clean, less sweet than granulated sugar and dissolves nicely in hot water without a gritty texture.
You can find it packaged in boxes or bags, in Asian markets.
Preparing Bird’s Nest
Soak the bird’s nest overnight in cool water.
The nest should be clean of all impurities.
If you happen to get bird’s nest that contains impurities, it’s best to clean the nest one more time. Bring a pot of water to a boil, and boil the bird’s nest for 10 minutes, then drain and rinse with cool water.
But since this bird’s nest is so clean, all we needed to do was soak overnight and drain.
Bring a pot with 6 cups of water to a low simmer. Add in the drained bird’s nest and jujubes.
Keep the heat on low – you don’t want a hard, rolling boil (which would break the delicate bird’s nest). Aim for the smallest bubbles possible.
Cook for 30 minutes – 2 hours. The timing really depends on the quality of the bird’s nest that you have. For Golden Nest’s products, it only took 30 minutes of cooking to get a gelatinous texture. If you over-cook the bird’s nest, it will become gummy and break apart, ruining the very expensive delicacy!
Taste the bird’s nest – it should be soft, gelatinous, slippery-like.
Add in 4 medium chunks of rock sugar. You can turn off the heat and just let the sugar slowly dissolve. Taste and add additional sugar if you’d like. The flavor should be delicately sweet.