Thursday, August 17, 2006

"Exactly What Is `Bird's Nest' Soup?"

Whether it's traveling halfway around the world, or curling up on the couch in front of the TV watching Dishnet, I love visiting other cultures and experiencing how other people live. And eat.

Even in America, some of the tastiest, inexpensive (and healthful) meals can be found in the ethnic neighborhoods of American cities. I've never understood American tourists abroad eating at McDonald's or Burger King.

In France yet!

In keeping with America's media and their focus this week (self-proclaimed Jon Benet Ramsey murderer, John Karr, a child porn collector and ex-pat living in Bangkok), TCA brings a bit of Thai culture to the story, an epicurean delicacy served all over the far east - bird's nest soup. Unlike other imaginatively-named dishes in Asian cuisine ("Thousand Year-Old Eggs" and "Four Happiness Shrimp"), "Bird's Nest Soup" is a literal concoction.

From Kate McGeown, at the BBC:
As dawn breaks in violence-wracked southern Thailand, a welcome sound fills the air.

Thousands of birds stream from the eaves of houses in the region, bringing their birdsong with them.

It is not only the birds’ sounds, though, that the locals have come to enjoy. An increasing number of people see these swiftlets as a way to make money, by harvesting their nests to make soup for Chinese restaurants.

Many houses have been left empty so that birds can nest in them, while other buildings have been constructed specially for the purpose. There are 80 bird houses in Pattani town alone.

"If you give a house to the birds, in return they give you money for free," said Punrit Wattanayakorn, whose family has been harvesting nests for more than 100 years.

Pongsak Jangurasii spends most of his time working as a doctor in a Pattani clinic, affected like everyone else by the constant violence caused by the ongoing separatist insurgency. But in his spare time he goes to his bird house and checks whether there are any empty nests that he can harvest.

Pongsak and his team only remove the nests if there are no eggs or young birds inside.

Two species of swiftlet have edible nests. They make them from a special secretion from their salivary glands.

"These are fantastic birds – they’re so clever, like artists, building these nests," said Pongsak.

"I don’t know how they do it. Outside the nest is very strong, while the inside is like a web or a net, so it’s soft for the egg."

Pongsak and his wife Saowanee employ seven people to help them with their birds’ nest business – mainly for the labour-intensive cleaning process.

"In order to clean them, we put the nests in water for two hours to make them soft, then we use forceps to take out the feathers, insects and pieces of shell," said Saowanee.

"It takes a long time, and is something that can only be done by hand. We employ five people to do this with us."

Pongsak recommends drinking the birds’ nests with honey or sugar, after simmering for about 20 minutes on a stove.

The Chinese usually put the nests in a soup, to eat as a starter. Chef Sayon Manratpoh, at the CS Pattani hotel, offers customers a special birds’ nest menu. You can have nests with fried rice as a main course, or with ice cream and coconut milk as a dessert.

Birds’ nests are said to be good for the lungs and the kidneys.

"It’s seen as royal food in China," said Pongsak. "There’s a famous Chinese legend in which a great person searched the world and arrived at the sea, found these birds’ nests and took them back to China as a present for the emperor."

It's a lucrative business.

Pongsak sells his birds’ nests in boxes of 100g, retailing for 1,000 Baht ($25) each.

The continuing attacks in southern Thailand have dissuaded many businesses from operating in the area, and it is one of the poorest regions in the country.

Harvesting birds’ nests is becoming increasingly important as a way to earn a living.

"It’s a good source of income here. In the future, it might even become the main source of income," said harvester Punrit Wattanyakorn.

But for many people, harvesting birds’ nests is as much an act of love as a business venture.

"Since I was young, I’ve been used to birds being everywhere. I love them – my whole family do. My favourite is a bird called Speto," said Punrit Wattanyakorn.

And being around birds certainly provides a welcome relief from the daily reality of bombs, shootings and arson attacks that plague this region.

If you find yourself with a hankerin' to cook some up yourself (or some other exotic taste treat), visit Kevin Kelly - Cool Tools website, a sort of third world Williams-Sonoma, and TCA's 'Coolness'-ness site of the day.

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