Our Malaysian guide Ping Ping loves her food. We know this because she talks about it – a lot. When we walk on along the riverside in Melaka for a few minutes, she stays behind, and admits to us when we return that she has used her time well.
Call it reconnaissance if you like. Maybe research, but she’s been snacking on a special – ‘very special,’ she says – delicacy.
She quickly hustles us into the air-conditioned and spotless Yong Ann Birds Nest restaurant (www.yongann.com) where we are seated on wooden chairs. She urges us to taste the café’s specialty which, she underlines, has been harvested at great risk. We give in to please her, and Ping Ping orders a second helping of bird’s nest tart for herself.
The menu in this small unprepossessing café offers a range of dishes, all featuring this rare ingredient. Under Ping Ping’s close scrutiny we order some desserts and a ginseng birds’ nest drink. She has already half-consumed the last tart in the shop.
I feel she really doesn’t mind at all if we don’t like our choices as she will happily clean up the leftovers. Did I mention she quite visibly loves her food?
It’s only when, as the sweetly gelatinous substance slips between our teeth, that we are told what it really is, and realise queasily what we are eating. This bird’s nest is not exactly the bird’s nests, the bedroom and nursery built by tiny cave swifts. That had seemed bad enough. But it’s worse. It’s the bird’s own dribble!
Melaka is one of Malaysia’s oldest cities and perhaps the second most important tourist destination in the country after KL. The food here showcases Malaysia’s wonderful mix of Indian, Malay and Chinese, with a touch of Dutch and Portuguese and the magic fusion of Malay and Chinese in its Nyonya cuisine
But Ping Ping wants us to experience a Chinese delicacy- and we’re not sure we want to.
First some history. The shallow cup-shaped nests are built by tiny male swiftlets, and are usually stuck on to the walls of coastal caves in Indonesia. Harvesting these is perilous and, you could argue, ecologically wilful. They are said to be one of the most expensive animal products in the world. Regardless of this, the Chinese have been savouring this delicacy for at least four centuries.
Because these nests are not made from straw and hair and the usual bird’s nest building materials, the ‘interwoven strands of salivary laminae cement’ are able to be dissolved in water to give a silky texture to soups and desserts and to impart a certain flavour to ice creams.
Typically, the health-conscious Chinese believe that eating these nests (which are high in calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium) provide health benefits. It seems that after this our digestion, concentration, immune system, and, yes, of course – the old standby – libidos, will improve.
There are both red and white nests, and a red sells for about five times the price of a white one. To one side of the café there are shelves holding packages of bird’s nests products and they are certainly not cheap. However, even if the flavour or cost or ethics don’t stop me buying one as a souvenir (and they do), I am pretty sure my own country’s quarantine restrictions would.
So what does it actually taste like? I nibble some mango bird’s nest ice cream before pushing it across the table to the helpfully available Ping Ping.
Hmmm, unremarkable, I decide. Sweetish. Nice texture. Certainly not worth the danger for the harvester or the loss of a home for the swiftlet family. And, although it’s a possibility that perhaps I need to have consumed more, I just don’t feel markedly healthier afterwards.
Perhaps Ping Ping does. She’s smiling and looking very content. But then she’s possibly put away three or four good helpings today!