Painting a picture: coconuts and bird's nests

by Mukta Das12 March 2020

Mukta Das and Andrew Wong introduce the bird's nest – an unusual Chinese ingredient that's regarded as a status symbol – before exploring the theme of Chinese desserts and how they can clash with western palates.

Mukta is a food anthropologist specialising in Chinese cuisine.

Mukta is a food anthropologist specialising in Chinese cuisine. A graduate of Chinese and Indian history from SOAS, she has lived and worked in East Asia and Europe. She works closely with chef Andrew Wong to discover and explore China's rich culinary traditions.

Mukta is a food anthropologist specialising in Chinese cuisine.

Mukta is a food anthropologist specialising in Chinese cuisine. A graduate of Chinese and Indian history from SOAS, she has lived and worked in East Asia and Europe. She works closely with chef Andrew Wong to discover and explore China's rich culinary traditions.

Bird's nest is exactly what it says it is – the preserved, processed nest of a swiftlet made from the bird's saliva that's incredibly difficult to harvest. In this piece, food anthropologist Mukta Das and Michelin-starred chef Andrew Wong shed light on the unusual ingredient, exploring its use in Chinese cuisine and coming up with a dessert that not only showcases it for a western audience, but also reflects the little-known climate of China's tropical southern coast. Read on for more information on this fascinating product and to see the recipe.

...[the bird’s nest] is prepared in various ways, but a soup resembling that of vermicelli, but of better taste, and incomparably more nourishing, is made with the broth from a substantial olio, or stew […] The Chinese esteem it highly, and generally pay, according to its scarcity or abundance, eight, nine, and sixteen pesos per cate, which contains twenty-one onzas. They are very difficult to gather, for the birds always build them in craggy locations, in whose tortuous and precipitous caverns they are only obtained by descending a rope. Some are obtained by climbing up bamboos [...] So dangerous evolutions cost even broken arms and legs, and sometimes even cause death.

–Concepcion, Friar Juan de La, 1642. General History of the Philipinas in (ed. various) The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898, translated by Emma Helen Blair and James Alexander Robertson

Andrew Wong: Bird’s nest is a medicinal product. It’s given value that has nothing to with flavour and purely to do with the social status and the exclusivity of the ingredient. When I first started as a chef I always thought bird’s nest was a waste of time – it just provides texture and there’s no point to it. But actually the more that I work with Mukta and the more that I cook, the more I realise that a lot of food isn’t purely experienced as flavour. Cultural relevance and cultural importance play a role in the eating experience. Culture, flavour, texture – they all go hand in hand, particularly in creating prized ingredients. There are a lot of prized ingredients in Chinese gastronomy, such as shark’s fin, dried abalone, dried scallops. Can you construct these flavours by using other ingredients? Absolutely. But does substituting the ingredient itself mean that the dish is fundamentally different?

Mukta Das: Back in imperial times, bird’s nests were harvested from sea-facing cliff faces where ocean-travelling swifts would nest and hatch their young. People used to abseil down these cliffs and harvest the abandoned nests. Now the nests are also farmed in Southeast Asia, in places like Indonesia and Malaysia. They build tall ‘bird bungalows’ and encourage migrating swifts to nest there. Harvesting the abandoned nests by climbing a ladder is a hell of a lot safer than clinging onto a rock face!

AW: After the nests are collected, you then have a team of people who will clean the bird’s nest millimetre by millimetre by hand. It takes hours to do and is a massively intricate process. It is then dried, packaged, sold and then carefully rehydrated by cooks before cooking. Generally, people know very little about Chinese ingredients, or the artisanal skills that are involved in drying, ageing and fermenting these products, and how these processes are all about improving the eating experience. Just look at red and white mulberries – they are an important part of western Chinese cuisine, but the season is actually very short. When they are dried and rehydrated, however, they take on a unique flavour that’s different from when they’re eaten fresh, so it’s more than just a preservation process; it alters the final flavour.

MD: Mulberry trees are cultivated in western China, which has the perfect climate for silkworms to flourish among its leaves. The Silk Roads (the name for the trade routes that cut through the area) identified the major commodity that the trees were associated with. But the mulberry and its leaves and bark all have important medicinal and cultural importance for the region.

AW: I’ve created this dessert to build particular interest in different parts of China and the stories I want to tell, as opposed to just coming up with a standard traditional dessert dish.

It’s a celebration of the overall idea of Chinese desserts, which is a difficult topic to tackle. To me, traditional Chinese desserts are particularly unsuitable for western diners. Desserts aren’t traditionally eaten at the end of a meal in China; instead, they are enjoyed as part of the main meal or as a communal experience outside of formal meal times. These dishes are usually soups and broths and there isn’t that resolute sweetness that you get with European desserts. And if you don’t use butter or sugar in a European dessert, then it becomes a very different thing.

MD: But sugar did arrive in China with quite the fanfare. In the eleventh and twelfth century, the night markets in the city of Kaifeng were full of varieties of candies, cakes, fruit preserves, flavoured powdered sugars, brown sugars, white sugars and sugar syrups. Martin de Rada and Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, two Augustine friars visiting Fujian in 1575, found that refined sugar was widely used to make edible sculptures, similar to those you saw in European courts around the same time. Refined sugar was still expensive enough that it was limited to the tables of elites and given as extravagant gifts. For everyone else, it was a seasoning. You have recipes from the 1700s for dumplings filled with sugar and goose fat, and biscuits made with walnuts and melon seeds coated with sugar.

AW: This idea of sugar as a seasoning is still reflected in the way that bird’s nest is typically cooked in China: in a pumpkin broth and seasoned with a little bit of rock sugar. It’s a dish that straddles the sweet-savoury divide, although it falls a little more on the sweet side. So with this dessert dish, I’ve kept things within the realm of desserts in a format I hope people will try. It’s a vegetarian product the way that milk or cream is, and because it is so important to Chinese gastronomy I wanted diners in the UK to have a chance to experience it.

MD: Bringing the granita together with the coconut ice cream and the mulberries is a celebration of places such as Hainan in the southern coastal region of China. Hainan is very much a beach resort (similar to places in Thailand) and is a place to bury your toes in the sand. People don’t necessarily equate tropical climates and tastes with a place like China, but in truth China is vast and straddles many different climate zones. It isn’t just a place full of skyscrapers and hutongs.

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