One of the other ‘oddities’ that featured on the mid-nineteenth century Parisian ‘Chinese’ menu I gave you the other day was ‘swallows'-nests, cooked in the Nankin method.’ I am not sure what ‘the Nankin method’ entailed, but the basic dish was presumably the famous and intriguing ‘Bird’s Nest Soup.’ A well-known and variously attributed quotation is that ‘it was a brave man that first ate an oyster.’ It must have been a much braver, or hungrier, man to first tackle a birds’ nest.
The birds in question are several species of swift (Aerodramus sp.). The male builds the nest precariously high up on the wall of a limestone cave – although nowadays humans provide purpose-built concrete nesting houses in many areas, to encourage supply and facilitate harvesting. The construction material for the cup-shaped nest is a special form of saliva to which is attributed medicinal properties nothing short of miraculous.
The medicinal reputation, and the (originally) extremely hazardous harvesting method has resulted in the birds’ nests being amongst the most expensive foods consumed by humans. One kilogram of the highest quality nests may be worth over $10,000 USD!
Like so many exotic Eastern dishes, Bird’s Nest Soup became briefly fashionable in Europe in the nineteenth century, its name Frenchified to the far-more glamorous-sounding Potage aux Nids d’ Hirondelles. Our recipe for the day comes from Things Chinese: Or, Notes Connected with China, by James Dyer Ball (1904.)
Birds’ Nest Soup.
… is even more of a luxury in China than turtle soup is in England … it forms the first dish at all grand dinners. Here is a receipt for preparing Potage aux Nids d’ Hirondelles, translated from the Chinese :
‘Take clean white birds’ nest shreds, or birds’ nests, and soak thoroughly. Pick out all feathers. Boil in soup or water till tender, and of the colour of jadestone. Place pigeons' eggs below, and add some ham shreds on top. Boil again slowly with little fluid. If required sweet, then boil in clear water till tender, add sugar-candy, and then eat. This is a most clear and pure article, and thick (or oily) substances should not be added. It should be boiled for a long time; for, if not boiled till tender, it will cause diarrhoea.’
Quotation for the Day.
Plant a radish, get a radish, never any doubt. That's why I love vegetables, you know what they're about!
Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt