A rare delicacy hard to sell
Ou Seathong sells one of the most expensive foods in the world: edible bird spit. At her shop on Street 182 in Phnom Penh, she sorts edible bird nests on the shelves. Hundreds of years old, the Chinese delicacy is made of the congealed saliva of Asian swiftlets.
Business had been good, with Chinese tourists coming to her shop and buying the nests as souvenirs before going home. But a year ago, the Chinese government put a spoke in her wheel – a ban on imports of Cambodian bird nests.
“My clients, the majority of them, came from China,” she said. “Commonly, in Cambodia there are not many people who know about bird nests, but it is well-known in China and Vietnam,” she said.
“Now Chinese authorities banned the import and it is difficult to find a market.”
It’s still some of the most expensive spit around, but the ban has caused prices to drop, with Cambodian bird nests costing around $1,500, and imports from Malaysia being worth up to $2,000 per kilogram. In the Chinese tourist heyday, the Cambodian nests went for around $2,200 per kilogram.
Processed into food or beverages, the white nests and red nests are supposedly rich in nutrients and believed to have health benefits.
“The majority of my clients are pregnant women and elderly who need more nutrition,” Seathong said.
She added that a bird’s nest can last for up to four years before losing quality if preserved well.
Before operating the shop, around seven or eight years ago, she bought some nests from other local raisers and some which were imported from Malaysia.
The motivation for Seathong to start the business stemmed from her Chinese parents, who used to cook food from the nests when she was young. At the time, prices soared to $5,000 per kilogram.
But following her decision to start a shop, more and more people built houses for birds to collect their nests, and prices plummeted before being resuscitated by the Chinese tourists.
She said that even today, the number of bird-nest raisers is increasing, along the coastline, National Road 5 as well as in Phnom Penh. Generally, however, the bird’s nests collected in coastal areas are of better quality.
Seathong’s relatives live in Kampot and have three houses for birds to live in and make nests. They collect about eight kilograms for three months, and get the remaining supplies from Koh Kong and Preah Sihanouk provinces.
Because of the difficulties she faces today, Seathong said she does not intend to operate a processing factory for producing beverages from the nests because it’s expensive.
“It is high-class product,” she said. “Right now it is difficult to sell.”
Big business in bird’s nest in Myanmar seaside town
The cries of amorous swiftlets echo around the dark room, an unlikely gold mine for traders in southern Myanmar, who are cashing in on the rising demand for the edible nests from China’s growing middle class.
Dozens of buildings dedicated to the tiny birds have sprung up around the seaside town of Bokpyin in recent years, their grey concrete structures towering over the humbler wood and brick homes of the town’s human inhabitants.
Every morning and evening, the air is filled with high-pitched twitterings blasting from loudspeakers, that draw thousands of the swallow-like birds home to roost.
Edible bird’s nests have become one of the main industries in the town, which is traditionally known for producing betel nut (areca nut), a chewable stimulant, as well as rubber and palm oil.
Traders can charge around US$2,000 (RM8,591) a viss (equivalent to 1.63kg) for the tiny nests – more than the average person in Myanmar earns in a year.
“We started making man-made bird nests (houses) 10 years ago,” said Paing Set Aung, who owns one of the buildings where hundreds of swiftlets make their homes in the rafters.
“Initially, there was a house where the birds came to roost by themselves. After that, people started to construct man-made bird houses.”
Most of the tiny white nests, which are made from solidified bird spit, are sold to neighbouring China.
Long considered the reserve of the country’s wealthy elite – who ate them at lavish banquets – they are increasingly in demand from middle-class consumers.
Today, the global edible bird’s nest industry is estimated to be worth US$5bil (RM21.5bil), most of it produced in South-East Asia.
Myanmar’s exports have surged since 2011 – the year the former junta handed over power to a quasi-civilian government.
“Bird nests are one of the main businesses in Bokpyin,” said local Lin Aung, who built his first house five years ago and is now on his third.
“China is the top buyer of bird nests here.”
‘Caviar of the East’
Once across the border, the nests are transformed into one of the most expensive foods in the world.
When boiled in water, they dissolve into a gelatinous gloop which is then made into desserts, or drunk as a soup or a tonic that is said to prolong life and improve strength.
There is little peer-reviewed scientific data showing that nests have proven medicinal properties. Nutritional studies have shown the saliva to be mainly made up of protein, followed by carbohydrates.
In Shanghai, restaurants sell this “the caviar of the East”, as it is known, for hundreds of dollars a bowl.
Many of them cater specifically to women, who believe the nests can help smooth the complexion and make them look younger.
The tonic is also said to help during pregnancy – one of Shanghai’s high-end spas solely for mothers-to-be even has its own restaurant, and sells gift bags for as much as RMB3,900 (RM2,431).
Shoppers can also order the products online, including candied bird’s nests from Myanmar to be eaten as sweets.
“In China, the bird’s nest has been a really famous and much-loved traditional tonic since ancient times,” Zhang Yi told AFP, speaking from her NestCha restaurant.
“It is mild and a little sweet. It is good for women, the elderly, children and men.”
These luxury products are a far cry from the nests’ humble beginnings on the islands of Myanmar’s southern archipelago.
To begin with, they were harvested on the region’s many islands by daring climbers, who risked life and limb scaling treacherous cliffs without any safety equipment.
For years, the industry was dominated by the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (Umehl), a sprawling conglomerate controlled by the military elites that ran Myanmar for half a century.
But, as in much of South-East Asia, production has increasingly moved into urban centres.
Locals in the southern city of Myeik started building houses to attract the birds decades ago; later, production spread to Bokpyin and nearby Kawthaung.
There are now more than 130 houses devoted to the swiftlets dotted around the region, according to state media.
Competition for space in Bokpyin between bird’s nest producers and tourism developers has seen land prices surge to as high as US$75,000 (RM322,000) a plot in the downtown area – on par with parts of the commercial capital Yangon.
Nests are normally harvested three or four times a year, but traders can collect them as often as once a month if they are in need of cash.
Producer Aung Kyaw Moe said that because the swiftlet populations naturally increase as the birds become accustomed to their homes, the industry will only grow in the coming years.
“They are like humans, because they come and live here after they get to know the place,” he told AFP, standing next to his tall wooden bird house in Myeik. — AFP/Athens Zaw Zaw & Matthew Smith