BIRD'S NEST SOUP
Bird's nest soup is a soup made from the nest of a kind of cave-dwelling swift. It is regarded as a delicacy, health booster, life prolonger and aphrodisiac in Asia, particularly in China and Hong Kong, and is said to rejuvenate skin, clear up complexions, clean out the digestive track, and cure lung cancer. [Source: Eric Valli, National Geographic, January 1990; Roy Andries de Groot, Smithsonian]
The translucent, gelatinous material used to make the bird nest gives the soup richness and texture and was compared by an 18th century adventurer with the foam of wave crests. Chinese have made the nest material into a jelly mixed with spices and sweets as well as soup. The taste? One producer said, it was “sort of like a piece of paper.” The nest material has little flavor and generally is cooked with something else to give it flavor.
Bird's nest soup was invented around 1750 by a Siam-based Chinese man named Hao Yieng who discovered the "wind-eating" swiflets and learned that their nests were soluble in water. In 1770, the King of Siam, granted Hao Yieng a monopoly on the bird nest trade. He promptly became rich. Later the Siamese took back control of the nests and a "corps of hereditary collectors" was established.
A kilogram of top quality bird's nests can go for $3,000 to $4,000, half the price of gold, and is the product of about 120 nests. A tureen for four people of "Nest of Sea Swallows with Venomous Snake and Chrysanthemum Petals with Lemon grass Lotus Seeds in Soup"—with several drops of venom squeezed from the glands of a snake pulled out a bag—can go for $100 or more in Hong Kong and is made from six nests.
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Bird Nest Market
Chinese companies get their bird's nests mainly from Southeast Asia countries for processing and subsequent packaging for the local market. Malaysian bird's nest exports to China had surged from 1.44 tonnes in 2009 to 100 tonnes last year.
Despite nationwide crackdowns, smuggled bird's nest still end up on consumers' plates. Illegal exporters revealed that they smuggled the food into China along with shipments of other goods through ports in Guangdong and Fujian provinces and Shanghai. Their agents retrieve the goods at the ports and courier them to buyers to evade inspections by watchdogs. "There will be no certificate of health for these bird's nest. Not having to obtain certification from both the Malaysian and Chinese authorities has saved us a lot of money and work," said a Malaysian bird's nest producer. [Source: Chow How Ban in Petaling Jaya, The Star, Asia News Network, August 27 2011]
Fake Bird Nests
Fake bird’s nests are a problem, The fake bird’s nests were sold at RMB 15-30 per gram, while genuine bird’s nests are usually sold at RMB 38 per gram at least, with some of them even sold at RMB 78 per gram. At present, there are nearly 200 bird’s nest stores in Xiamen. Apart from some franchise stores owned by famous brands which are protected by brand laws, most of the stores are selling different bird’s nest products. [Source: http://www.woxmobile.com/m_news_msg.php?titleid=19005]
Therefore, most counterfeiters choose new brands to manufacture fake bird’s nest products.“Those news brands which just gain popularity in the market have a certain market share so that fake bird’s nest can also sell well, “according to Mr Wu, the principal of one bird’s nest specialty shop in Xiamen.
An industry insider said that due to the lack of supervision and standards in the bird’s nest market, fake products appear frequently. Unlike other food, bird’s nest is free from routine sampling of by the Quality Supervision Department. And bird’s nest does not belong to health care products so that it is not subject to drug authorities. The insider added that while customers are purchasing bird’s nest products, it is necessary to ask for relevant certificates, such as a sales certificate, hygiene certificate and certificate of imported good
Method of distinguish real and fake bird’s nest: Some kinds of fake bird’s nest are designed as if they are real. Customers who have little experiences of distinguish are easily to be cheated. To avoid this they need to observe the real bird’s nest at the dealers of brand companies. Otherwise color and smell are good indicators of fake bird’s nests. The real nest is orange, red. The fake one is white, made of agar or agenate mix with flour. The real nest has a fishy, mouldy smell. The fake one has hardly any of this smell. It has strange pungent smell. Customers who buy bird’s net can test by dipping it in the water. If the nest is faked, it will become pasty. The real nest will not be pasty. The other method is to put the nest in iodine solution. If it was faked, it will turn into blue. For blood bird’s nest, it will become red or pink when dipped into tea water. If it was faked it will become darken. If the nest is dyed, the coloring will dissolve into water. The real nest remains it color when boiling in water. In summary, if customers need to by bird’s nest, they should get consultancy from experts because they can specify whether the nest is real or faked.
boxed bird's nests
Tainted Bird Nests
Chow How Ban wrote in The Star, a Malaysian newspaper, “China has ordered a national check on red bird's nest after samples were found to have higher than permitted nitrite levels. But the shocker was that blame was put on Malaysian exporters. A spot check conducted on red cubilose, better known as red bird's nest, in East China's Zhejiang province has developed from an isolated case into a national affair, and threatens to go international. [Source: Chow How Ban in Petaling Jaya, The Star, Asia News Network, August 27 2011]
Local market watchdogs have been ordered by China's federal government to carry out inspection on all edible bird's nest in the market in view of serious industrial contamination. Results from recent tests conducted by the Zhejiang Administration for Industry and Commerce on more than 30,000 cups of red bird's nest in the past two months showed that almost all the samples contained nitrite levels in contravention of China's health standards, with some up to 350 times above levels. Nitrite is a toxic substance that may lead to chronic poisoning.
The authorities blamed it on cubilose imports from Malaysia. Malaysian bird nest exporters, stunned by the allegation, said Malaysia had never been known as a producer of the so-called "blood-red cubilose". They suspect some bad apples in the industry could have made the fake bird's nest for a quick kill.
Checks at a wholesale market and several other retail outlets in Beijing revealed that all bird's nest products had been removed from the shelves; and retailers were awaiting the authorities' green light for the sale of the nutritious food again "It is a risk to sell or even display bird's nest now as the authorities will come and check our products regularly," said Xu Shuhan, a wholesaler from Hongyuan Abalone & Shark's Fin Trading Company at the Da Hong Men Wholesale Market. "Not only that, they will take away boxes of samples for examination, and it will be a big loss for us. So, it is better to stop selling them."
He said he had turned away many dealers and customers seeking to buy bird's nest under the counter. A sales promoter from the Long Xi Shang Pin wholesale outlet said they had been keeping their bird's nest products in the storeroom for about two weeks now to avoid any problem with the authorities.She said they sourced their products from Guangdong province, but could not tell which country they were imported from.
Li Yumei, a chain store owner of Yanzhiwu, one of China's largest bird's nest chains, said she had removed all the cubilose products, both white and red bird's nest, from her store in the Shuangjing area and sent them for inspection.
On Aug 17, Xiamen Suntama Industry Development Co Ltd, the owner of Yanzhiwu brand, said the company had ordered all its chain stores around China to stop selling their product, a day after the State Administration for Industry and Commerce notified all local departments to beef up inspection and enforcement on bird's nest to ensure food safety.
While consumers no longer can buy bird's nest from retailers, it is still available online or directly from dealers. "The red cubilose episode will help boost sales of the white bird's nest which I am selling," said Y.M. Sim who sells cubilose online. Fuciphagus Agritech Sdn Bhd CEO Moh Chee Hong said it was business as usual for his company which has legal documentation to export bird's nest to China. But his business had slowed 20 percent due to product recall faced by his buyers.
"We encountered a case two weeks ago when 5kg of our bird's nest were denied entry at Xiamen because the Chinese Customs said they had updated their requirements for the nitrite level in bird's nest, despite our products having already met the Malaysian standard for export," he said. "After discussions, they accepted our explanation and allowed our goods through." Officials from the Malaysian Department of Veterinary Services (DVS) and several Malaysian exporters flew into Beijing on Friday to address the Chinese press on Malaysian bird's nest.
Shark Fin Soup
Shark fin soup is popular in southern China, Singapore, Hong Kong and in Chinese and Asian communities all over the world. It has a glutinous texture and is made by boiling the fins with vinegar, starch and spices. It is often served at wedding banquets. Chefs say that shark fins have little flavor. The gelatinous needle-like fibers of collagen that are left behind when the skin and cartilage are stripped away, add texture—and virility some say.
China is the largest consumer of shark fin soup. Shark fin soup was once regarded as a delicacy that only the rich can afford.Four hundred years ago shark fin soup was served at banquets for emperors and wealthy nobles and merchants. In recent years as China has become wealthy, more and more people can afford it. Now there are many well-off middle class people that can also afford it. Many business deals are sealed over a steaming bowl.
The trade in shark fins is extremely profitable. Shark fins are easy for fishermen to preserve by sun drying and transport. Fishermen can sell the fins for $50 a kilogram (compared to $1 a kilo for shark meat), which middle men are able to sell to restaurants for $2,350 a kilogram. Shark-fin soup top-grade fins sell for a much as $150 a bowl.
Tens of millions of sharks are killed for their fins, one of the main reasons shark numbers have declined. The number of sharks taken solely for their fins increased 2,000 percent between 1990 and 2000. Explaining why demand is so high one Singapore wholesale told Reuter, "Shark fin has been a traditional food for the Chinese for thousands of years. There is something missing if you go to a wedding dinner with no shark's fin."
A shortage of shark fins has led suppliers to look for other sources to meet demand. Among the sources they are turning to are the wings of manta rays and devil rays They are targeted because the swim near the surface and are easy to catch and their wings are big. Most the fins end up in a poor man’s shark fin soup made ray cartilage and low grade shark fins.
Yao Ming’s effort to get Chinese to stop consuming shark fin soup has had little affect.
See Separate Article: SHARK FIN SOUP AND EFFORTS TO DISCOURAGE CONSUMPTION OF IT
Weird Foods as Aphrodisiacs in China
Fertilized duck eggs are consumed as an aphrodisiac by Filipinos, Chinese and Vietnamese. Chinese men also consume bull and deer penises soaked in herbal wine, sea-cucumber, bull's pizzles cooked with Chinese yam, and snake bile to boost their sex life. Bird nest soup is supposed to prolong erections.
Indian tribes in the Pacific northwest have made fortunes selling geodusck, a giant burrowing clams, to markets in Hong Kong and southern China. The clams can weigh as much as 16 pounds and have a penis-like neck that can extend for three feet. Wealthy diners will pay up to $100 in Hong Kong or Shanghai for a dish made with geoduk meat.
Many aphrodisiacs either incorporate the penises of animals or are shaped like penises. Dog penises from Thailand are sent to China and Taiwan, where they are consumed as energy boosters. Deer penis and testicles sold together in an ornate green box lined with red satin will set you back $63.
Human Fetus Health Food in China
In 1995, a Hong Kong-based magazine reported that women in China were taking a tonic made from human fetuses which promised to "make the skin smoother, the body stronger, and is good for the kidneys." The fetuses, which were typically a few months old and were the result of abortions, were given away free of charge by the Shenzhen Health Center for Women. A doctor at another clinic told the magazine that fetuses with pork soup were especially good.
Chinese believe that human milk can cure many ailments. During the Yangtze River floods of 1998, soldiers rubbed their bodies with breast milk and drank cups of it given to them by wet nurses.
In 1991, Reuters ran a story about a pair of brothers who took the buttocks and thigh meat from cadavers about to be cremated and used them to make Sichuan-style dumplings at White Temple restaurant on Hainan Island. The story turned out to be a hoax. Neither the brothers nor the restaurant existed.
Wild Animals as Food in China
Sandworms Civet cats, anteater-like pangolins, bobcats, badgers, baby deer, squirrels, frogs, geese, bats, flying foxes, herons, cranes, sparrows, black beetles, turtles, pigeons, starfish, scorpions, caribou, monkeys, foxes, and raccoon dogs are all widely eaten in China. One common joke goes that the best job in China is a zookeeper.
The sale of wild animals in the Guangzhou area alone is estimated to be around $100 million to $200 million a year. In Shanghai there is restaurants that sells nothing but snake dishes and others that sells only wildlife dishes. A restaurant in Beijing called Getting Stronger from the Pot serves 20 different types of animal sex organs. Food made from wild animals have been a fixture of Chinese cooking for a long time. A list of delicious food from China in 1500 B.C. included "orangutan lips, the tails of young swallows...and the choice parts of yak and elephant..."
"When Chinese see a cute little rabbit," Paul Theroux wrote, "they want to eat it. The rarer a bird is the more delectable it is. And nothing is wasted. When a duck is slaughtered its blood is saved in a small bowl and later congealed and cubed for vegetable dishes. It is no wonder that there aren't many wild animals in China." The Chinese writer Ha Jin thought America had to be a rich country because, "There were so many squirrels, and no one was trying to eat them."
Many people eat wild animals because of their purported health benefits. Eating brains is supposed to make one smarter. Eating foxes and pangolins is supposed to improve one’s muscle tone. Eating hawks and owls, which sell for about $5 in markets, are said to improve one's eyesight. Consuming deer penis or seal penis is supposed to increase one’s potency. There of stories of chimpanzee blood being consumed to cure impotence. Some people say they prefer wild animals because they know they are fresh and not treated with chemicals.
Since the 1990s, as incomes have risen, consumption rates of weird meats and wild animals has risen dramatically in China.
According to present rules, wild animals are not supposed to be sold for food. They must be bred in farms for more than two generations and then subjected to strict regulations before restaurant can obtain a licence to sell them.
Hunters trap hedgehogs and wild boar in the hills. Foreign hikers sometimes get trapped in wire snares aimed at animals. Even common animals like frogs and sparrows have disappeared as hunters have caught them for food. Sparrows are often more common in the cities than in the countryside, where they have been hunted out of existence.
Wild Animals as Food in Guangdong
locusts and scorpions The people of Guangdong province are particularly famous for eating wild animals: rats, pythons, cata, foxes, and a wide assortment of local animals. They often eat them at specialty restaurants that display the animals they serve alive in cages outside the front and kill them after the customer orders them. Those bought in markets are preferably purchased live and butchered in front of the customers.
In Guangzhou, people say they will eat “anything that moves across the land, sea or sky except trains, boats and planes.” In Guangdong people say they will eat anything that walks, crawls, hops or flies. Affluence has only increased the demand as people who couldn’t afford these foods now can. One man who indulges on wild animal meals two or three times a month told the New York Times, “When you see an animal, it’s only natural to wonder what kind of flavor it has.”
The First Village of Wild Food restaurant in Guangzhou offers flying fox, civet cats, small deer, several species of birds, dark-haired pigs and plump rabbits. Most of the animals are kept down stairs in cages. Customers can pick out the animals they want and eat them upstairs. Butchers who have tables near the cages quickly kill and skin the animals which are then prepared by cooks in the kitchen
The Sent Down Youth No. 1 Village Wild Flavor Restaurant in Lianbian outside Guangzhou offers herons, snakes, baby deers, flying foxes, and dozens of other species in a dining area decorated with kitschy Mao era posters. Their specialty is “Dragon, Tiger, Phoenix," a stew made with snake, wild cat and crane.
Endangered Animals as Food in China
Among the rare and unusual wild animals sold at markets are several species of monkey (their brains are supposedly a great delicacy), braised wildcat, armadillos, anteaters, bear claws, mantjac (a small deer that the Chinese call a fruit-eating rabbit), pangolin, giant salamanders, and expensive breed of dogs. A good meal of rare foods costs the equivalent of four month's salary or two month's rent for a studio apartment in Shanghai.
The people of Guangdong province have a traditionally sought out endangered animals such as golden monkeys, pangolins and cranes. One restaurant in the city of Maoing sells golden monkey meat for about $125 per kilogram, crane meat for about $80 per kilogram, and bear paws for about $175 per kilogram. Chefs at the restaurant boasted they could prepare almost any kind of wild animal as long as they were given enough time in advance to obtain it.
Some Chinese go to Mong La, Myanmar—“the Las Vegas of the jungle” in a tribe-controlled area of Myanmar—to feast on wild animal dishes such as bear paws, Burmese star tortoises and pangolins.
Pan Wenshi, a conservationist known for his work with pandas, told the New York Times, “In the 1990s, the Chinese economy started booming, and those with money—governors, factory owners, businessmen—all wanted to eat wildlife to show how powerful they were.
Bear Meat Banquets and Civets
Bear meat is valued as sexual-performance and health booster. A bowl of bear claw soup—a prized delicacy at restaurants in China, Hong and Taiwan—sometimes sells for hundreds of dollars. Bear paw is supposed to be especially tender from pawing for salt.
South Koreans, Taiwanese and Chinese tourist go to restaurants in Thailand where, one environmentalist told AP, "The bear is tortured to death in front of the diners. They say it makes the meat taste better. the coast of the bear banquet is now about 9,000 U.S. dollars."
Around Guangzhou, the meat of civets—nocturnal mammals closely related to mongooses—is eaten in a stew as a winter time delicacy said to be rich in yang, an energy source that helps keep one warm. The meat is also braised, roasted and added to soups. The animals are served at restaurants, sold at markets and raised in breeding farms. Small-time civit breeders earn $200 a month, considerably more than the could earn from farming.
There is circumstantial evidence that SARS originated with civets. The SARS virus and corona viruses found in humans are 99.8 identical to the SARS virus and corona viruses found in Himalayan, or masked, palm civets, racoon dogs and hog badgers sold for food at the market in Shenzhen, China. Researchers also found antibodies to the virus in the blood of 20 wild animal traders and 15 workers who slaughter the animals.
Efforts to End Eating Wild Animals in China
Legislation has been introduced banning the eating of wild animals in Guangdong province and imposing stiff fines on restaurants that serve endangered animals such as golden monkeys, pangolins and cranes. One restaurant owner was sentenced to five years in jail for serving pangolin. Another told the New York Times, “Rare owls and crocodiles used to be popular but you can’t get them anymore because the government has banned them.”
Many wild animals are brought in from Southeast Asia. In 2004, police confiscated 1.2 tons of turtles, pangolins and iguanas in Vietnam that were bound for wild animal restaurants in China.
There is a green movement among professional chefs. Hundreds have signed a manifesto pledging not to cook rare animals. The Economist reported: “There are precedents for the disappearance of classic Chinese dishes on conservation grounds. Bear’s paw, for example, is no longer eaten openly. Instead, you may be offered imitation bear’s paw made from mutton pushed into a paw-shaped mould. Imitation shark’s fin is already available should anybody want it. And when the social cachet of a fabulously expensive delicacy is required, these days a bottle of Château Lafite might do. [Source: The Economist, October 1, 2011]
Image Sources: Weird Meat blog except Shark fin soup, Julie Chao http://juliechao.com/pix-china.html , and Bear paws, Wild Alliance, pangolin by Kostich, bird nest from Wiki Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2010