The Coveted Caviar Of The East: A Delicacy For Which Lives Are Risked
A significant part of the reason bird’s nest soup is so highly valued can be attributed to ancient Chinese aristocracy.
Emperor’s Exotic Taste
To this day, research has been unable to validate whether bird’s nest soup can increase libido, improve skin health, resolve respiratory problems or prolong life. But it is for these reasons, among others, that Chinese aristocrats thousands of years ago were so enamored with the delicacy.
Nest were first picked and traded in China around 600 A.D., during the T’ang Dynasty. It was during that time that the private chef of Emperor Yan Jian was at his wits end trying to satisfy the demanding palette of his Emperor. In particular, he had a fancy for hot soups with tangy broths. The chef, fearing that if he did not satisfy the Emperor would find himself the victim of a nasty beheading, did extensive research and discovered a new delicacy being imported from Borneo – bird’s nests. He prepared the soup with the nest and upon watching the Emperor take the first sip, was mortified to learn that the he thought it was ordinary and bland. Threatening the chef with violence, he quickly spoke up and made it clear that what the Emperor had just eaten was special, rare and exotic. It was also believed to give those who consumed it an extended life. Upon hearing this, the Emperor decided it was a dish fit for his high level of nobility and commended the chef on his fine work.
At no time in history has harvesting the bird’s nests from their high locales been an easy task. The brave souls who dare to retrieve them are truly amazing.
The Gomantong Caves in the state of Sabah, Malaysia, are intricate limestone dwellings of the swift birds and the epicenter of the bird’s nest industry. Harvesting the nests is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.
Locals who are licensed and trained bird’s nest collectors must climb to the top of the caves using only bamboo ladders, ropes and poles. These are basically rudimentary tools and there are no significant safety measures in place. Once they have reached the top, they use a pronged tool to loosen the nests. They must then collect the nest and bring them down. Every time they go up, there is a good chance that they could get injured or even die. In fact, deaths are a fairly regular occurrence. The entire bird’s nest industry is quite rough around the edges, and some say a dark place to work. Bird’s nest harvesting companies are forced to pay high fees to the government in order to operate. The fees encourage them to protect their businesses, sometimes with brutal force. Some use armed security guards and even private armies to protect their interests. They have been known to bribe authorities and shoot at anyone they suspect might be an intruder at their caves. This type of behavior has put a serious damper on tourist activity, especially by rock climbers who wish to scale the limestone walls.