Nests of tiny Asian swifts indigenous to the cliffs along the coast of the South China Sea are rare and expensive, but are the essence of Chinese birds’ nest soup. The tiny nests are almost pure protein from predigested seaweed deposited and formed by the birds and hardened into tiny translucent cups.

The nests are highly nutritious and reputed to sustain youth and, although birds’ nest soup is considered an essential element of any feast, many Chinese women drink a small cup as a daily tonic.

Most Chinese markets sell the nests in highly decorated boxes with a window where they can be examined. Whole unbroken nests are most expensive and are the only choice for many traditional cooks. Broken nests are available, but ground nest are the choice of most cooks because they are relatively inexpensive and easy to clean.

When properly cleaned, the nests have essentially no flavor of their own and are valued for their brittle and unusual texture. Even though the nests depend on other elements of the soup for flavor, these elements must not be too assertive and overwhelm the lightness of the nests.

The successful birds’ nest soup is a balancing act that you will celebrate when you recognize you have done it right.

How to make birds’ nest soup

For 6 first course servings


1 cup loosely-packed ground birds’ nest

About 1 inch crushed ginger

1 pound boneless and skinless chicken breast

3 Tbsp water

6 cups rich chicken stock

1/8 tsp white pepper

Salt to taste

2 Tbsp cornstarch, dissolved in 3 Tbsp stock

1 Tbsp minced cooked Smithfield ham


1 tsp salt

2 tsp cornstarch dissolved in 1 Tbsp water

2 egg whites, beaten until frothy

Preparing the birds’ nest

Soak the nest in warm water for about 3 hours. Pour into colander and rinse well with cold water. Remove any impurities. Place in a saucepan, cover with warm water and bring to a boil.

Drop in the ginger, turn heat to medium and simmer for 5 minutes. This will remove any lingering slightly fishy taste. Do this step well ahead of time. Drain, cover and refrigerate until you are ready to make the soup.

Preparing the chicken

Freeze the prepared chicken breast for about half an hour until meat is firm but not frozen. Cut into chunks and mince (do not turn it into a puree) chicken and 3 tablespoons of water in food processor.

Add salt, cornstarch mixture, stir well, and then add beaten egg whites. Stir until mixture is fluffy. Cover and put aside in refrigerator.

Making the soup

In a large soup pot, bring chicken stock to a boil. Add birds’ nest and reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer for 5 minutes.

Adjust seasonings.

Turn heat to low. Give reserved cornstarch mixture a stir, pour into soup, and stir until broth thickens. Continue stirring as you add chicken.

Turn off heat and continue stirring until chicken is white and the soup is smooth and fluffy. Pour into serving bowls and sprinkle with reserved minced ham.


Whether or not birds’ nest soup prolongs youth might remain open to question, but this richly delicious chicken broth is a worthy starter for any meal even when you substitute rice or mushrooms.


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