Why Bird’s Nest Soup Is So Expensive | So Expensive

Why Bird’s Nest Soup Is So Expensive | So Expensive

July 22, 2019 100 By William Morgan


Narrator: Bird nest soup.
It’s a gelatinous mixture,
made from, you guessed it, bird nests.
You can find it on the menu
at certain Chinese restaurants
like at Oriental Garden,
here in New York City.
But it’ll cost you.
Cici: For one person it costs $32.95,
and for four people it costs $128.
Abby: And that’s normal pricing?
Cici: Yeah, that’s totally normal.
Abby: Wow.
Narrator: So, what makes it so expensive?
People in China have
been eating bird nests
for more than a thousand years.
It’s believed to have
near magical properties,
from curing cancer to
helping children grow taller.
And the main ingredient?
The partially dissolved nest
of a swiftlet, a small bird
native to Southeast Asia.
Three times a year, swiftlets build nests
out of their sticky saliva on
cave walls and cliff sides,
where they raise their young.
It’s the high cost of these
saliva nests that makes
bird’s nest soup so expensive.
Here in New York City’s
Chinatown, for example,
a couple dozen were selling
for more than a thousand dollars.
Until recently, the most
common way of getting the nests
was by harvesting them from the wild.
Creighton: There are many dangers involved
in harvesting nests from caves.
They would climb up without
really any safety nets
or harnesses, that kind of thing,
and just try and extract the
nests from the cave wall,
and they’d be, in some
cases, many stories up.
Narrator: But for many, the
risk was worth the reward.
Creighton: Harvesters
would often try and collect
as many nests as they could, regardless
of whether they were fully formed,
and they would just take them repeatedly.
Narrator: In some regions,
swiftlets couldn’t compete
with the rate of harvest,
and so their populations plummeted.
Between 1957 and 1997,
the number of swiftlets
declined by as much as 88%
in parts of Southeast Asia,
largely due to overharvesting.
And as a result, the price
of bird’s nests skyrocketed.
Creighton: The price for bird nests,
I would say, peaked in
around the early 1990s.
Narrator: Around that
time, nests were selling
for up to $1,000 a pound.
Adjusting for inflation, that
would be around $2,000 today.
Those high prices earned bird nests
the title “Caviar of the East.”
And they also fueled a new industry.
You could call it hospitality.
Scores of people across Southeast Asia
looking to cash in on the bird nest trade
started investing in swiftlet hotels.
Creighton: People just found that if
there was a vacant building or, say,
the upper story of a
building was uninhabited,
then swiftlets would
make their way inside,
and they would start just using
the buildings as their nesting sites.
Then these rumors kind
of emerged over time
about how much money you could make
swiftlet farming really overnight.
Narrator: And they weren’t just rumors.
In Myanmar, for example, swiftlet hotels
can bring in at least $6,000 a year,
while the average annual
income is just over $1,100.
And the more swiftlets you draw
in, the more money you make.
Narrator: In the last few decades,
the swiftlet farming
industry has exploded.
From 1998 to 2013, the estimated
number of swiftlet hotels
grew from 900 to 60,000 in Malaysia alone.
But while this increased supply,
it didn’t exactly slash the price.
That’s because in the last
couple of decades or so,
demand has also increased.
Creighton: More people can afford it.
More people can access it.
Narrator: So while there
are more bird nests today,
they’re not much easier
to come by, and that’s why
bird’s nest soup is
still so pricey, selling
for over a hundred dollars
a bowl at some restaurants.
But the question on all of our minds was,
“Is it worth it?”
Abby: I’m gonna go, you ready?
Cici: Yeah.
Cici: You like it?
Abby: It’s really good.
I think we can add more
vinegar in, yeah, pepper.
Abby: I mostly taste like crab, and then
there’s that jello-type
texture in the back,
and that, I’m guessing,
that’s the bird’s nest?
Cici: Yes
Abby: It’s really good.
Cici: It doesn’t taste like anything.
Abby: No.
Narrator: But then again,
that’s not the point.
People sip it up for the alleged
health benefits it offers.
And there may be some truth to that.
One study suggests that bird nest soup
may possess anti-inflammatory properties,
and another concluded
that it may help reduce
the side effects of chemotherapy.
Plus, it’s rich in protein.
In fact, swiftlet nests
are 40% to 50% protein.
So if nothing else, it would
make for a nutritious snack,
albeit an expensive one.