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Tweet and Sour

The many wonderful qualities of bird’s nest soup

Author Benjamin Carlson Illustration Peter Oumanski

globe3HONG KONG – Grace Choi, a longtime regular at the Hong Kong eatery Lotus Garden Desserts, carefully ladles a clear, gelatinous soup into a small bowl. “It’s quite subtle,” she says, pushing the bowl toward a frowning companion. “They do it well here because they don’t overdo it on the sugar, which kills the saliva flavor.”

The dish Choi is serving up is bird’s nest soup, a prized—and pricey—regional delicacy. A trim woman in her 60s, Choi claims to love the soup’s sweet, woody flavor, along with the slippery, occasionally rubbery texture, which can make novices wince. Particularly hard to swallow, for some, is the knowledge that you’re essentially eating a $20 bowl of bird spit.

Bird’s nest soup, so named because it contains the saliva swiftlets use as the mortar for their homes, has been an Asian dietary staple for several centuries. For almost as long, it has been valued for its purported medicinal qualities. Some affluent women in Hong Kong believe that the saliva helps them ward off old age, and so they happily pay up to $4,000 for a pound of it.

Choi, who seems remarkably spry for her age, doesn’t buy into the health-benefit thing. “I just like the taste,” she says. When presented with the idea that the soup might be viewed as, well, kind of gross, Choi laughs and takes a slurp. “For 20 years I ate it and didn’t know what it was,” she says. “Then, when I found out it was saliva, it was too late.”

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