THE CAVIAR OF THE EAST © Duncan Graham 2006
When Achmad Basuni and his wife Siti Mariah were building their new house in 2000 great good fortune swiftly flew in the window.
A pair of swallows darted into the half finished kitchen and cast knowing eyes around the walls and rafters. Like all astute real estate buyers they knew exactly what they wanted: Security, space, a cool atmosphere, friendly co-tenants and easy access.
Any Westerner who found feathered ferals moving into their kitchen would probably call a pest exterminator, but this couple rejoiced. “It’s a blessing from God,” said Achmad who runs a motorbike workshop. Commented Siti: “I felt pity on them. I didn’t want them disturbed. So we just stopped building there.”
The kitchen was given over to the visitors and the home rapidly re-designed. When the swallows laid their first clutch Achmad substituted a pair of swiftlets’ eggs bought for Rp 60,000 (US $ 7)
Swiftlets have dark plumage. They’re closely related to swallows and slightly smaller. In flight they look sickle-shaped. Swallows are migratory and move between continents and hemispheres. Swiftlets live only in the tropics and usually nest in caves.
Unlike their bigger and better travelled cousins swiftlets build quite different homes; their nests are edible, keenly sought and highly prized: They’re the raw material for the Chinese dish Bird’s Nest Soup – also known as the Caviar of the East.
Depending on the quality and season a kilo of swiftlets’ nests (that’s around 100) can fetch around Rp 10 million (US $1,150) at the barn door.
News about the swallows’ selection flew rapidly round the couple’s village of Jeru, about 20 kilometres west of Malang in East Java. Soon a stranger was knocking with a startling offer: He’d buy their house for Rp 300 million (US $34,000), double its market value.
No sale. Achmad and Siti knew that if their unwanted bidder was prepared to pay that much cash it must be worth a lot more to them.
There are now more than 40 birds flashing in and out of their selected home through small holes set high in the four metre walls. After daybreak the birds zip across to Balekambang Beach on the south coast where the flying insects they catch on the wing are most prolific. The birds return at nightfall, a round trip of about 160 kilometres.
There are a few other lucky folk in Jeru. You can pick their bird barns by the flat grey windowless concrete walls. The giveaway features are small entrance and exit holes, about the size of two bricks.
Some families rejected by the birds find their neighbours’ good luck difficult to swallow. “The big problem is thieves after nests and eggs,” said Achmad. “One farm spends Rp 2.5 million a month on security, five times the normal rate for guards.
“Others visit paranormals to persuade the birds to relocate. I know someone whose house has been abandoned three times by swiftlets after black magic has been applied. But the birds eventually came back.
“I don’t know why we were chosen. We’re just ordinary Muslims, certainly not fanatic about faith.”
Those more pragmatic than psychic are said to be using recorded sounds of swiftlets broadcast through speaker systems to entice passing birds to enter their barn. The birds emit clicks to guide them, a system known as echolocation.
Nests are harvested every three or four months after the chicks have flown. A pair of swiftlets can raise two or three broods a year. Buyers from Surabaya do the rounds of the roosts and take the nests for processing.
Environmentalists are concerned that nest harvesting isn’t always well managed. Greedy gatherers who take nests before the chicks take wing are threatening the species.
Swiftlet nests are made from the birds’ saliva produced by glands under the tongue. The nests’ edible qualities have been known for at least 700 years. What’s not known is how the discovery was made and why anyone would think a dirty nest could make a tasty dish.
Our ancestors must have choked on a lot of sticks encrusted with dung and vomited feathers and broken eggs before they found an edible variety.
The stratospheric price means bird’s nest soup is a food only for the mega rich. Few restaurants in Surabaya have it on their menu. Those who do can charge up to Rp 2 million a bowl (US $225).
For this sort of money diners want more than a lip-smacking experience. So it’s no surprise the nests are supposed to possess extraordinary characteristics from improving skin tone to warding off tuberculosis, curing consumption, dysentery, malaria … the list has no full stop. And, of course, enhancing sexual performance.
These claims are unlikely to be denied by anyone whose credit card has just melted on the restaurant cashier’s swipe machine. The catch is that the real or imagined benefits don’t come with just one big banquet to celebrate the commercial coup. Promoters say a regular diet of 10 grams a day is necessary.
The cooking process is critical. A microwaved or boiled nest will be nutrition-free. Best to steam slowly after soaking which expands the nest. The taste is said to be sweet, more like a dessert.
Surabaya distributor Dendy Van Hallen said the best nests came from bird barns in Java. These nests were usually clean and glossy, almost transparent. Cave nests from Papua and other outlying regions were often contaminated by feathers and dirt and worth only Rp 1 million a kilo (US $114).
“I send to restaurants on demand,” he said. “Most ask diners for a week’s notice so they can prepare ahead – it’s not a dish you can order on the spot. The bulk of our nests go to Jakarta.
“We do little preparatory work in Surabaya – cleaning up the nest is done in the restaurant where they soak and remove impurities.”
If you’d like to make your own soup at home a Malaysian company sells boxes of six tiny jars for Rp 200,000 (US $ 23). Each jar has an off-white jelly which the label says is made from birds’ nests, ginseng, sugar and ‘white fungug’.
Indonesia produces 80 per cent of the world’s edible birds’ nests. Most come from West Java and are exported to Hong Kong, Holland, Singapore and Taiwan. The last official published figures show Indonesia’s annual production around 27 tonnes. That’s a lot of swiftlet spit.
(First published in Jakarta Kini, August 2006)