History has it that Admiral Cheng He discovered the edible nests when he and his men were stranded in the archipelago in the 15th century. Here, Boon Saun shares about the modern-day’s making of bird’s nest.

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It was nearing Chinese New Year when I met up with fishmonger Lim Boon Saun at a wet market in Ipoh, the northern state of Perak. 

He was just packing up his fish stall and was in a hurry to go home to harvest and pack bird’s nest to be exported to China. Boon Saun, 40, was eager to share this interesting fact about the China market.

“You know this is the time of the year in China where people show off their wealth by what they have in their fridges. And bird’s nest is one of them,” he smile knowingly. In his own home, Boon Saun serves his guests generous helpings of bird’s nest soup as the nests are harvested from his own bird houses nearby.

Boon Saun working at his nest farm

He ventured into this lucrative supplement 12 years ago when he needed more space to store his fish stocks. He bought a shoplot in Taiping to convert it into a cold room. His friend who was managing the renovation converted the upstair of the house into a bird’s nest farm.

“We spent one year watching the swiftlets flying at the back of the house to study their patterns. Then we set the environment to attract the birds. For example we can’t have strong breeze coming in from the vents because it will make the nests very dirty.”

“When we harvest, we have to make sure we take from the empty nests where the chicks have flown off. The ones that feel spongy inside are meant to hold the eggs and to keep them from breaking. We can’t take those,” Boon Saun explains showing a clean nest that he had scrapped off the wooden beam in the ceiling. He adds that the nests will appear dirtier if the birds have laid eggs in it. 

He employs the help of home makers in his community to the task of picking the feathers from the nest with pincers before packing them off to the middleman.

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Bird’s nest is believed to stimulate growth and regenerate body tissues. Boon Saun proudly shows off his daughter’s complexion claiming that it is due to his wife consuming bird’s nest soup daily when she was pregnant.

Boon Saun harvests nearly 1kg of the nests monthly but he makes sure that he does not take all as this will traumatise the birds and will chase them away. He says the current price for unclean nests is about RM3000 (USD775) per kg while clean ones sell for more that RM6000 (USD1500).

He says the demand for bird’s nest has also increased locally especially with the boycott of sharkskin soup in some Chinese restaurants during celebration dinners. 

Words and Photo by YY Chen

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