I’m ready to renounce all of my possessions and become an edible bird nest farmer. Overhead is low, labor is minimal, and demand is virtually endless, driven by China’s insatiable hankering for bird nest soup.
You can guess what the main ingredient of this ancient delicacy is, but these nests aren’t made from twigs and leaves. Swiftlets, a bird indigenous to Southeast Asia and the South Pacific Islands, build nests from their spit. The result is a crunchy texture that’s somewhere between a beehive and a cobweb. The nests are laden with feathers, have a distinctly avian stench, and are prized for myriad alleged health benefits, from immunity boosting and anti-aging properties to claims of curing cancer.
While studies have shown the composition of the nests indeed contains nutritional value in the form of numerous essential amino acids and mineral salts, definitive evidence supporting the notion that they’re some sort of natural cure-all is lacking. But that’s irrelevant, because we’re not here to discuss the nests’ proven health benefits. We’re looking at the business side of bird spit, which is currently selling in China for upwards of US $500 per pound.
In Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, this has resulted in a burgeoning cottage industry where swiftlets are lured into dark, cavernous dwellings that blast a piercing bird call throughout the day. Most bird nest farmers are hesitant to let someone inside their operation for various reasons, among them superstition, spooking the birds, or fear of stealing their techniques.
Recently, 27-year old Mai Nhut Truong allowed me to pay a visit to one of his bird nest farms, located on the top floor of his family-run hotel in My Tho, 90 kilometers outside of Ho Chi Minh City, to find out what it takes to tap into this booming market.
Now, I’ll be honest: It’s not great inside the nesting site. Swiftlets flap around your head constantly, swooping in a seemingly erratic manner. They never appear to remain perched for long and from a distance could easily be mistaken for bats due to their flight patterns and dark grey color. In size, they’re comparable to a sparrow but with long, thin wings.
Inside, there are also no lights or windows. The steamy heat of southern Vietnam gets trapped and blankets you upon entry.
And a surround sound audio system blares that screeching bird call on repeat. Of course, bird shit (which, interestingly enough, is sold for $3 a pound to attract the birds) is everywhere .
These conditions, however, are what it takes to make it in the bird nest game.
“Most people don’t have technique,” said Truong. “They build a place and hope it’s appealing enough for the birds to settle down. Some people think it’s luck, but there are certain ways to attract the birds.”
After studying architecture, Truong tried his hand at a number of businesses before the potential returns in bird nest farming enticed him to make a run at it. Today, he can be considered an authoritative figure in the biz, owning four swiftlet operations that produce a combined 25 to 35 pounds a month. He sells them to a range of sources, from independent buyers to large distributors, and points to proper ventilation, building materials, sounds, and smells as the main factors contributing to his success. Additionally, he’s built around 50 nesting sites for others looking to get into the business.
If done correctly, it can take a few months for the swiftlets to arrive and make their nest. For Truong, it took a year and a half to wait for the eggs to hatch and the birds to abandon their home. “When they all fly away, then we can harvest the nests without disturbing the birds. If you maintain a good environment where they feel safe, they will return and the cycle will repeat itself. Soon enough you will have a full flock of birds.”
Patience is key, as he noted; there’s not all that much to be done during the nesting period other than clean a little bit and keep away predators, like lizards and bigger birds. Nearby fruit farms also play an important role, attracting an abundant food supply of bugs.
Post-harvest, the nests are cleaned—largely a matter of removing the feathers—and inspected for quality. Smell and color are the key characteristics: The whiter and less pungent they are, the lower the grade.
Though you want the smell to be as strong as possible, the idea is to cover it up when you’re eating the nest, as Truong’s wife shared, “We usually steam the nests with rock sugar and coconut water and eat it with a variety of beans. Even still, there’s always a slight stench to it. After all, this is bird spit. That’s why we cook it and try to cover the smell.”
There are of course, those who partake in unsavory practices, as Truong told me: “I don’t eat bird nests in Ho Chi Minh City because I don’t trust them. A lot of times you could be eating 60 percent nest and 40 percent rice.”
“Some people tamper with the nests, like during processing they pack them with extra weight and you can’t really distinguish a difference in the taste.”
Less common, but not unheard of, is attempting to make the nest look naturally-occurring. Long before farming took off, the primary means of attaining a swiftlet nest was to venture deep into caves and scale the walls to get them, a practice that continues today on the islands along Vietnam’s central coast. Natural nests are the crème de la crème of the industry, fetching prices over $4,000 a pound.
“They are very rare, extremely expensive, and usually exported out of Vietnam,” said Truong. “They’re sold to buyers in other parts of the world because they pay more. If you try to buy a natural bird nest in Vietnam, it’s almost certainly a fake.”
With the market for farmed nests being what it is, there’s really no need to go that route. A local news outlet recently reported that there are over 4,200 bird nest houses in Vietnam and growing.
Truong remains ever-optimistic, emphasizing the opportunity. “The industry has vast potential. Supply is nowhere near meeting the demand. We basically don’t have any competition. It will take a very long time to reach that point.”
Translation services for this story were provided by NPD Khanh.