Bird’s Nests: if you can’t eat them, drink them

One of the top delicacies in China is made from birds’ spit

Yanwo, or bird’s nest, has been regarded as a rare delicacy in China until recently, when the average spending power of Chinese consumers started booming. They are not the nests of any bird obviously, but the nests made by swiftlets (sea swallows, haiyan), with bird saliva as the main ingredient.

Hard to get

Edible bird’s nests are among the most expensive Chinese delicacies and tonics consumed by man. High quality whole clean white nests can come from Sabah, Thailand. and Vietnam and can retail at well over two thousand dollars a pound. For centuries, Chinese emperors, or m more precisely: their women, has been known to consume bird’s nest to enhance beauty and aid in disappearance of fine facial lines.

Bird’s nest are exclusively built by small birds known as swiftlets. They belong to the large family of the common swallow, but only nests from three species are edible. The nests are built from the bird’s salivary secretion which is abundant, particularly during breeding season.

These nests, often found clinging to the ceilings of caves as high as two hundred feet, are built by both parents expressly for raising their young. When the hatchlings are ready to fly off, the nests, found in many coastal caves of South East Asia including Borneo, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam, are then abandoned.

Some of most costly edible nests are known as red blood nests. These are commonly misunderstood. Many think the red is stains of blood from the birds; however, their reddish hue is not blood. It is simply ferrous material, that is iron from chemical interactions of various natural factors such as temperature, humidity and contents of the cave walls where the nests cling.

Medicine

According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), bird’s nest influences lung, stomach, and kidney meridians, and improves appetite and complexion. Chinese commonly use them to aid recuperation from debilitating illnesses because of their easily digestible glycoprotein and other nutrients; also because of their as yet undiscovered bio-compounds.

Science cannot yet explain the healing powers attributed to birds nests. Protein is the most abundant constituent of the nests, which contain all of the essential amino acids. They also contain six hormones, including testosterone and estradiol. The nests also contain carbohydrates, ash and a small quantity of lipids. Research has indicated that the nests contain substances that can stimulate cell division and growth, enhance tissue growth and regeneration, and that it can inhibit influenza infections.

Recent scientific findings about bird’s nest characteristics highlight the presence of a unique profile of epidermal growth factor (EGF) believed responsible for repairing skin cells and tissue. This EGF is said to be responsible for their therapeutic benefits including enhancing a person’s complexion.

Processing

Techniques of processing are minimal for whole nests with few feathers, that is if they are white and relatively clean. Nests with lots of feathers, known as black nests, need extensive processing in what is considered a cottage industry. Typically this is a long, tedious, and labour-intensive task. Generally, a space in a building close to the where the nests are gathered is transformed into a simple factory. There, workers devote themselves to cleaning, drying, sorting, grading, and packing collected uncooked nests.

First, black nests are washed and soaked with warm water for up to forty-eight hours. Hot water can cause nests to expand and their strands to unravel. Too little water makes it difficult to extract the impurities. Next, tweezers are used to pluck the feathers and other foreign particles from the wet nests. Workers are trained to pick out only impurities and not destroy or remove actual nest strands. Hard corners of the nests are trimmed and removed using scissors.

Once the nests are completely cleaned and trimmed, their long strands put into cup-shaped metal molds; see an illustration of them on this page. This helps them retain their original shape; and they are air-dried without heat. Once dried, they are graded and packed for shipping. Each piece of processed, dried, raw bird’s nest usually weighs about three and a half to four grams; that is twelve- to fifteen-tenths of an ounce. To process a batch of black nests from raw to dried and to clean them can require three or four days.

Cooking

Because edible bird’s nests can be prepared in many ways, in savoury soups, desserts with rock sugar, or infused with herbs, many Chinese and others enjoy bird’s nest dishes often during banquets and celebrations. When taken regularly, they are believed to improve a person’s overall physical health and their mental dexterity.

Preparing raw bird’s nest can be done in two ways. Premium white whole nests are made to look like a halved cup putting them in to a wire frame to shape them. The more affordable black nests are dried and molded into flat leaf-like pieces. To prepare them, the nest is rinsed quickly and then soaked in warm water to allow it to expand. Then it is either steamed or double-boiled for at least two hours. Tools and types of molded bird’s nest are also illustrated on these pages.

There are many recipes that use bird’s nests including those serving them as a soup, typically with lean chicken. Sometimes, other ingredients are added to enrich the soup. Many people love bird’s nest in dessert. One simple way is to add rock sugar with or without fruit. Some people add pitted dried red dates, lotus seeds, even white fungus. Others add coconut milk or pieces of other fruits such as papaya, mango, or pear.

The birds nest has even aroused the interest of famous Western chefs like Gordon Ramsay, as witnessed by this youtube video.

Industrial age

As hinted at the beginning of this blog, the consumption of birds nests has been affected considerably by the growing spending power of Chinese consumers. The birds nest trade increased 30 times between 2015 and 2017. While typical consumers used to be middle aged or seniors, the focus group has been shifting to the 18 – 25 year age group in recent years. Online shop Alibaba sold for RMB 1.48 billion of birds nests in 2017. What has been regarded as a tonic for wealthy ladies for centuries, is now within reach of most Chinese women. However, instead of eating the nests directly in the traditional way, birds nests are now made available in various presentation forms, including as ingredient for health foods and drinks and cosmetics.

Today, bird’s nests can be pre-prepared and bottled for convenient culinary usage. It is important to purchase reliable brands ensuring that bird’s nests are of high quality. As is the case with many fancy foods in China, fake birds nest abound. Purchasing reputable bottled bird’s nest is not only easy, but it assures that the contents are made using real high quality edible bird’s nests.

Listed

The latest development is that the Shanghai-based producers of birds nest health beverage: Yuwenqing (both company name and brand name) Birds Nest Water,  announced that it was seeking a listing on the Shanghai stock exchange on August 15, 2017. I don’t want to vouch for the nutritional value of this drink, its ingredients are listed as:

Water, rock sugar, Malaysian birds nest

One cannot but wonder how much of the ‘birds nest water’ you can make from one nest. But this news does show that the birds nest is yet another TCM product that has successfully reinvented itself in the modern world of fast moving consumer goods.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.

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What on earth are . . . zongzi?

It has been a while since I posted a ‘What on earth . . .’ blog introducing a traditional Chinese food. So here is a new one.

In essence, zongzi are pyramids of glutinous rice with various types of fillings, wrapped in bamboo, reed, or other large flat leaves.

Traditional sticky rice dumplings are eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar (approximately late-May to mid-June).

According to popular belief, eating zongzi commemorates the death of Qu Yuan, a famous Chinese poet from the state of Chu during the Warring States period (5th century B.C.). Known for his patriotism, Qu Yuan tried unsuccessfully to warn his king and countrymen against the expansionism of their Qin neighbors. When the Qin general Bai Qi took Yingdu, the Chu capital, in 278 BC, Qu Yuan’s grief was so intense that he drowned himself in the Miluo river after writing the Lament for Ying. According to legend, packets of rice were thrown into the river to prevent the fish from eating the poet’s body.

Many Chinese still prepare zongzi at home, but it is more convenient for the modern city dweller to buy them from a professional street vendor.

Street

Zongzi are currently produced by machines, though they still cannot be produced completely automatically. To cope with the enormous demand during the season, zongzi makers simply hire more people to make them, as is shown in this video recorded at Wufangzhai (see below).

Standard recipe

Makes 20 zongzi

Ingredients

  • 40 large dried bamboo leaves (2 for each zongzi)
  • 20 long strings (for binding leaves)
  • 1 kg long grain sticky rice
  • 2 kg pork belly, sliced into 3 cm cubes
  • 10 salted duck’s egg yolks
  • 40 small dried shiitake (black) mushrooms
  • 20 dried, shelled chestnuts
  • 10 spring onions, cut up into 1 cm lengths
  • 500 g dried radish
  • 100 g very small dried shrimp
  • 200 g raw, shelled peanuts (with skins)
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup rice wine
  • Vegetable oil
  • 5 cloves of garlic, roughly crushed
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 star anise
  • 1 teaspoon five spice powder

Procedure

Preparing the ingredients

Soak rice in water for three hours, drain.

Stir-fry pork for a few minutes. Add chestnuts, soy sauce, rice wine, ground pepper, 1 teaspoon of sugar, star anise and five spice powder, bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 1 hour. Remove pork and chestnuts from liquid and set aside.

Boil peanuts until tender (30 minutes to 1 hour).

Soak mushrooms until soft. Clean and trim stalks. Cut into 2 or 3 pieces. Stir-fry with a little liquid from pork stew.

Halve duck egg yolks.

Chop up dried radish finely and stir-fry with 1/2 teaspoon sugar and garlic.

Stir-fry spring onions until fragrant.

Stir-fry shrimp for a few minutes.

To a large wok or bowl, add rice, peanuts, radish, shrimp, spring onions, a little liquid from the stew mixture and 2 tablespoons of oil. Mix well.

Wrapping

Soak bamboo leaves in warm water for 5 minutes to tenderise, before washing thoroughly in cold water.

Wet strings to make them more pliable.

Take 2 leaves with leaf stem or spine facing out. Overlap them lengthwise in inverse directions (pointed end of one leaf facing the rounded end of the other).

With both hands hold leaves about 2/3rds of the way along their length. At that point bend them so that they are parallel lengthwise and also overlap. This should produce a leaf pouch that you cup firmly in one hand.

Add a small amount of rice mixture, compressing with a spoon.

Add 1 piece each of pork, chestnut, mushroom, duck egg yoke.

Add more rice until you have nearly a full pouch. Compress firmly with a spoon.

Fold leaves over the open top of zongzi, then around to side until zongzi is firmly wrapped. Zongzi should be pyramid shaped with sharp edges and pointed ends. Trim off any excess leaf with scissors.

Tie up zongzi tightly just like shoes laces with a double knot. Normally they are tied to a bunch of zongzi.

Steam for 1 hour, unwrap and serve.

Diverse flavours

Traditionally, types of zongzi are divided into savoury and sweet.

  • Sweet zongzi flavours include plain zongzi, red bean zongzi, horse bean zongzi, date zongzi, rose zongzi, melon zongzi, red bean and lard zongzi, and date paste and lard zongzi.
  • Savoury zongzi flavours include salted pork fat zongzi, sausage zongzi, ham zongzi, dried shrimp zongzi, and diced meat zongzi.

Then there the many regional varieties.

Guangdong

Generally, Guangdong zongzi are large in size and have special shapes. They are either sweet with walnuts, dates, or bean paste as a filling, or savory with ham, egg, meat, or roast chicken as a filling.

Fujian

Roast pork zongzi and soda zongzi from Xiamen and Quanzhou are famous as two typical types of Fujian zongzi. To make roast pork zongzi, use top-grade glutinous rice and fill with roast pork, mushrooms, dried shrimp, lotus seeds, or braised pork soup. Locals often eat these zongzi with garlic, mustard, red chili sauce, and other condiments. Soda zongzi are made of glutinous rice and soda lye. After steaming for several hours, they are best cooled and refrigerated. When eating soda zongzi, people often add honey and syrup. Bean zongzi, very popular in Quanzhou, have a mixture of beans and glutinous rice as a filling.

Zhejiang

Ningbo zongzi, in the shape of a quadrangle, include many varieties, such as soda zongzi, red bean paste zongzi, and date paste zongzi. The most famous are soda zongzi, made of glutinous rice soaked in soda water, then wrapped in yellow reed leaves.

Jiaxing zongzi, in the shape of a triangular pyramid, use fresh meat, red bean paste, or eight treasures (choice ingredients of certain special dishes) as fillings. When wrapping this kind of zongzi, people put a small piece of fatty meat into the glutinous rice.

Sweet tea zongzi use stewed sweet tea to soak the glutinous rice. This type of zongzi have a bright color, a soft taste, and a sweet flavor. Generation after generation of people in the western mountainous area of Zhejiang Province have followed the custom of boiling zongzi with sweet tea, boiling rice with sweet tea, and cooking rice porridge with sweet tea. Even in the famous novel, Dream of Red Mansions (one of the four most famous classical literature works of China), sweet tea zongzi and rice are mentioned several times.

Beijing

Beijing Zongzi, a representative type of zongzi in north China, are small and rectangular. In the countryside people are accustomed to making zongzi using jujube (date) and sweet bean paste as fillings.

Guangxi

People in Guangxi prepare zongzi in the shape of a big pillow, each one weighing over half a kilogram. People in the Guilin region prefer small, pillow-shaped zongzi. People in northern Guilin make zongzi in the shape of a dog’s head. Also the fillings used differ from one place to another. People around Guilin city often add a little baking soda to the filling to make the zongzi tastier, while people in Quanzhou County (northeast Guilin Prefecture) like to soak the glutinous rice in straw-ash water for additional flavoring.

Shanghai

Shanghai zongzi have a variety of shapes and fillings. Vegetarian zongzi made by Gongdelin Vegetarian Restaurant include mushroom zongzi, broad bean zongzi, and red bean zongzi. Some types of Muslim zongzi are offered by the Muslim restaurant Hongchangxing. Its beef zongzi are the most popular among locals.

Fashionable zongzi

Just like the moon cakes, zongzi have been adopted by many hotels and restaurants a prestige products, which innovative fillings and nice gift packaging. Many of Beijing’s five-star hotels offer a mixture of traditional and innovative versions of zongzi. There are traditional red jujube and mashed bean fillings, along with fresh pork and egg yolk, and five-spice beef stuffing. Creative combinations include milk and eggs, and shiitake mushrooms with chestnuts. Rice in the dumplings is supplemented with yellow rice, taro and “eight treasures” (babao, as in babao porridge), referring to a mixture of healthy seeds and fruits. The pictures show two types of such signature zongzi.

Zongzi1Zongzi2

The industrial age

Zongzi do not want to lag behind other traditional foods like dumplings, moon cakes or mantou in entering the age of industrial production. A special feature of industrial zongzi is that the state regulations forbid using any additive like preservatives or colorants.

A pioneer producer is Sinian (Zhengzhou, Henan) that has already been reported on in several of my posts (please use the search function of this blog). Sinian has introduced the term ‘national zongzi’ (guozong). This may sound quite pretentious, but so far no one has challenged that designation. Its packaging also carries the phrase ‘Chinese flavour (zhonguo wei)’. As Sinian is not allowed to work with texturisers and artificial flavours, or sweeteners, the company using selecting the best natural ingredients as its main means of innovation.

SinianZongzi

In spite of the above mentioned regulation, ‘zongzi improvers’ are available in China. The producers are not liberal in revealing the ingredients of their compounds, restricting themselves to generic substances:

Emulsifiers, edible gum, phosphates, modified corn starch

The following table shows an industrial recipe for ‘eight treasure (babao) zongzi.

Ingredient Parts
Glutinous rice 1000
Water 15
Improver 3
Sugar 70
Candied green beans 20
Candied black beans 20
Candied peas 20
Candied white beans 40
Candied red beans 100

The beans and peas are all candied versions. Interestingly, this recipe is much simpler than the above mentioned DIY recipe. The source of this recipe may have held back some flavouring ingredients, but this may indicate the effect of the improver.

Another innovator is Shurongbang, also located in Zhengzhou. Shurongbang has developed sausage shaped zongzi, packed in metal foil, that can be baked in the same way (and using the same equipment) as hot dog sausages. The main raw material used by this company is sweet potato.

SRBbaking SRBopened

Top 10 Zongzi of 2016

The following table lists the top 10 most popular zongzi of 2016 selected by the industry.

Rank Brand
1 Wufangzhai
2 Zhenzhenlaolao
3 Sanquan
4 Sanzhenzhai
5 Ganso
6 Daoxiangcun
7 Sinian
8 Zhulaodao
9 Hongchuan
10 Miqi

Among these brands, Sanquan and Sinian appear in several posts of this blog (use the Search function of this site) as top producers of frozen snacks. Ganso is mentioned in the post on biscuits and Daoxiangcun in the one on mooncakes.

China’s top producer of snack food Sanquan (Zhengzhou, Henan) has launched a series of zongzi of its own in 2018, adding several novel flavours for this traditional food, including coffee, pineapple, coconut, and grapefruit.

Famous brand looking for robot

Wu Fang Zhai, a time-honored brand of zongzi, is based in Jiaxing of Zhejiang province. Founded in 1921 with a small workshop, the enterprise now produces over 1.8 million zongzi each day at peak times during the Duanwu Festival.

The custom of eating zongzi during the festival in Jiaxing dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). As the technique for making zongzi in Jiaxing gradually developed, zongzi produced here became more popular around the country, especially meat zongzi. The technique for making of Wu Fang Zhai zongzi was placed on the list of national intangible cultural heritage in 2011. While an automated assembly line has replaced much of the manual work, the part of wrapping zongzi is still done by hand. Recently, the company announced that it is looking to spend RMB 10 million to develop robots that can replace humans to make zongzi. The materials for making zongzi are specially chosen from high-quality sources. The rice is from Northeast China’s Heilongjiang province, the leaves wrapped around the zongzi are from high mountains in Jiangxi province, and the meat filling is made of selected pork hindquarters from exclusive pig farms in Henan and Zhejiang provinces.

Instant zongzi

Likoufu, a subsidiary of the Guangzhou Restaurant Group, has developed an instant type of zongzi. It needs to be stored at -5 to 0 degrees. Consumers can eat it immediately after buying. Chinese consumers will need some time to get used to eating zongzi cold, but in the subtropical climate of Guangzhou, instant zongzi can be perceived as an alternative for

Big business online

Zongzi have also entered the cybershelves of the various online retail platforms. 2018 was a top year in that respect. Tmall has sold 108 mln zongzi during around the 2018 Duanwu Festival. Online business facilitates compiling statistics. Competitor Jingdong reports that meat-flavoured zongzi made up 56% of the zongzi it sold, date-flavoured 23%, bean-flavoured 13% and chestnut-flavoured 6%.

Combine them with other traditional foods

Wufangzhai (Jiaxing, Zhejiang) has launched a zongzi pack in 2018 that contains 10 zongzi and 4 salty duck eggs. I am not sure if this will help sell more zongzi, but at least it is innovative.

Eurasia Consult’s database of the Chinese food industry includes 20 manufacturers of zongzi.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.