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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Sea cucumber – a slug with nutritional properties

Most foreigners liken sea cucumber with bicylce tire, but for Chinese it is a mine of nutrition

The sea cucumber is a gelatinous creature that is distantly related to star fish and sea urchins. Like these creatures, sea cucumbers have small tentacles around their mouth to take in food. It derives its name from the fact that it is shaped like a cucumber.

Sea cucumbers have been part of Chinese cuisine for centuries. They are not part of the everyday menu, as they are regarded an expensive delicacy, with a high nutritional value.

In traditional Chinese medicine, sea cucumber is ascribed salty and warm properties, and is associated with the Heart and Kidney meridians. It is believed to help nourish the Yin and blood, and is a tonic herb for treating the kidneys. It is used to treat a variety of conditions, including impotence and frequent urination.

Western visitors usually do not appreciate the rubbery mouth feel of the creatures. This aversion is reflected on the alternative name for sea cucumbers: sea slug.


The Chinese name for sea cucumber – haishen – literally means “sea ginseng.” This partly reflects the shape of sea cucumber, but also refers to the high nutritional value Chinese attach to this food.

Sea cucumbers really do not have a taste of their own. The taste has to come from the condiments with which it is prepared. They are usually served in a thick broth.


With the increase of the spending power of Chinese consumers, the production of sea cucumbers has increased considerable, as shown in the following table.

Year Output (MT)
2003 39 000
2008 90 000
2012 171 000


The largest production regions are Shandong and Liaoning provinces.

Region Ratio (%)
Shandong 48
Liaoning 38
Fujian 9
Others 5


Chinese experts distinguish a number of types of sea cucumber products.

  • Brine soaked sea cucumbers: soaked in strong solutions of salt; can be kept 3 – 6 months;
  • Salted dried sea cucumbers: the most traditional type of treatment;
  • Low salt dried sea cucumbers: basically the same as the traditional treatment, but with less salt;
  • Freeze dried sea cucumbers: have to be stored under freezing conditions.

Instant sea cucumbers

Preparing sea cucumbers is laborious and several research institutes are developing instant sea cucumbers ready for consumption. A number of these have already been patented. However, it seems that none of these patents have so far resulted in actual products. A company in Qingdao (Shandong) has patented a process that includes steeping sea cucumbers in an infusion of several TCM herbs. A company in Qinzhou (Guangxi) has filed a patent for processed sea cucumber packed in a so called ‘soft can (ruan guantou)’, that can be heated in the pack before consumption.

Eurasia Consult can help you find Chinese patents for all types of foods.

Added value

The industry has been studying ways to convert sea cucumbers in higher valued products.

A company in Shandong has developed a process to extract peptides from sea cucumber. The product has obtained official registration as a health ingredient. It is said to help lower blood cholesterol, ease hypertension and relieve fatigue.

Another company in Shandong has developed a process to produce sea cucumber powder using enzymatic hydrolysis. It is promoted as a health food for people with a high risk to develop cancer.

To satisfy the growing demand for sea cucumbers, some companies have started to breed them in coastal water. A company in Liaoning has developed a ‘three-stage breeding method’, starting in shallow water and gradually transferring the animals to deeper water.



Sea cucumbers from Canada

Wild Canadian sea cucumbers, captured in the North Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Nova Scotia province, are now also finding their way onto Chinese food tables, as most Canadian people don’t consider the creature edible.

Canadian seafood processing company United Trans has signed a deal with Beijing Pharma in June 2015. Under the agreement, Canadian sea cucumbers will be allowed entry into China as a health product. At least 30% of 2014’s catch was imported into China.

The wild variety of sea cucumber is usually larger and rounder than a Chinese farmed creature. They also have little thorns on the cylindrical body’s skin and have a ring of tentacles around the mouth. Canadian sea cucumbers are claimed have greater nutritional and therapeutic value as compared to the ones farmed in China, because they are richer in nutrients, including holothurin compounds, minerals and protein, and are free of contaminants because they grow slowly in deep, cold waters. Holothurin is also known as sea cucumber saponin. North Atlantic sea cucumber contains four types of holothurin. Research indicates that holothurin may help fight obesity. The chilly waters also force Canadian sea cucumbers to swim a lot, resulting in more muscle texture in the body.

Now it is time to relax and watch this video that offers a look at the various aspects of growing, processing and eating sea cucumbers.

The Iceland connection

Wild sea cucumber from Iceland joined a coding system launched by AliHealth, a health arm controlled by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, to help ensure food safety. The tracing system demonstrates product information such as its origin, production date, customer transportation, and safety/quality information. The Iceland sea cucumber is sold in Hema Xiansheng, an emerging online-to-offline supermarket operated by Alibaba. AliHealth first launched such a system in mid-2016 for medicines and the latest move represents a further expansion of the system’s use in the food industry.

Global heating poses big threat

High temperatures have caused deaths of sea cucumbers in a large area in Northeast China’s Liaoning province in the summer of 2018. The water temperature reached 35 C to 36 C around 2 pm at some days, which is about 10 degrees higher that sea cucumbers can sustain. According to local fisheries departments, sea cucumbers began to die across the province from July 28, and the animals first to go were in pools with a depth less than 7 meters. This is yet another unpleasant effect of global heating on the food industry.

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.