Golden saliva

The most expensive soup in the world.

HAPPY days are here again!

For the traders dealing in edible nests of birds, I mean.

From 2004 traders in Malaysia had their good days until there was a slump three years ago.

People in the industry blamed certain suppliers as having failed to meet the required quality standards by the buyers, mainly from China. In a scramble for a piece of the action in the lucrative business, many dealers were not paying sufficient attention to the quality of their products. As a result, many bird houses were neglected and small-time ranchers switched to something else to do while waiting for the market to pick up again.

Globally, the latest estimated worth of business in edible nests of birds is RM20 billion. In Sarawak, traders are talking about earning a few thousand ringgit from a kilogram of good quality nests. Export of the nests picked up after the recent visit of the Prime Minister to China. Obviously, this issue was brought up with the Chinese authorities during the visit and a solution found. As it is often said, “where there is a will there is a way”.

The prime producers of birds’ nests are two types of swiftlet, the Aerodramus fuciphagus and Aerodramus maximus. Now they have the option of living in towns or near towns, while their old folk are still living in the caves and they all must be protected at all costs.

Caves used to be the only places you could find these birds. Nowadays, however, the rafters of shophouses in towns are converted into ‘caves’. From these shophouses comes a cacophony of sound of fake bird calls blasted by loudspeakers to attract the real ones to come to roost. While the birds may be fooled, the humans in the neighbourhood regard the noise as a real nuisance.

Remember the row between the Forest Department and the ranchers in Mukah in October 2008?

Members of the Sarawak Swiflets Ranching Merchants Association made as much noise as the birds did, protesting against the demolition of the houses of the swiftlets in Mukah by the Forest Department officials. The department is the licensing authority and the local council’s job is to ensure the cleanliness of the town. These authorities must be allowed to regulate the industry at any particular place so that the droppings of the birds do not dirty the towns and the noise does not annoy the other residents – the humans. Both should establish a relationship that creates a happy medium – by observing the regulations governing these matters.

The caves

Back to the caves. They’re found throughout Sarawak but those in the Baram are particularly noted for white nests; these are comparatively more expensive than those of other colours.

However, not all caves are inhabited by the birds that produce quality nests and in commercial quantities, except one famous cave in Sarawak.

Apart from fame due to the discovery of bits and pieces of the skeletons of a human believed to have lived in the cave 40,000 years ago, Niah Cave also houses the birds and the guano (used as fertiliser) that they produce.

While the discovery of human existence in that cave is of immense heritage value, the incumbent winged-inhabitants are economically more productive. Their nests made of their solidified saliva fetch a lot of money in the market.

Among the millions of the middle class in China, edible nests are a prestigious food item. So the future of the trade in this stuff is bright and the sky is the limit, provided that quality control is strictly enforced at source.

For those of my readers who wish to find out more about the birds’ nest industry, there’s heaps of literature on it. There’s even a ballad called Sya’ir Jerjezang about this trade with Singapore, many years ago.

This narrative poem was transcribed in Jawi (the Malay script) by Imam Mera’ee Abdullah of Kampung Niah in the 1930s. The Sya’ir was originally composed and sung by the Imam’s grandfather, whose name I’ve yet to find. This poem was translated by Lord Medway into English.

I must acknowledge here the part played by a friend of mine, Dato Haji Arni Lampam, then a spruce young administrative officer stationed at Niah in the 1960s. He undertook to have the original text of the Sya’ir to be translated into English by Lord Medway.

Here goes the part which is relevant to the subject – rural yokels from Niah had brought a boatload of ‘stone mushrooms’ to Singapore. Picture this scene:

“What has been brought by the Captain?

The Captain’s crew at first said:

Merely intending to bring to Singapore

Many Chinese came to inspect them

It is not fungus we’re looking at

If you, sir, wish to do business,

Perchance in salt or even sugar,

Then spoke Pancar Negara,

Merely intended to serve as a trial,

All were taken by the Chinese.”


We must place on record here our gratitude to these men for preserving a beautiful poem about the famous birds with the golden saliva. This important resource of Sarawak has brought many people a lot of money. Now I can hear these people singing the Sya’ir all the way to the bank.

I’m envious – I haven’t got nests.

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected]

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