Two of the most luxurious foods in the world are widely available in Bangkok. With dubious health benefits and extravagant price tags, both Birds Nest Soup and the controversial Shark Fin Soup are lovingly lapped up at Thai-Chinese wedding banquets, by businessmen looking to close the next big deal, or by those just intrigued when wandering Chinatown. We went to find out why these dishes are so sought after; to discover what the fuss and flavour is all about, and just exactly how much it will set you back...
Birds Nest Soup: What's the fuss all about
Popular throughout Asia with the mega-rich, the origins of this sweet broth lie in China, where it's been a delicacy for over 700 years. No one knows who first decided birds nest was edible, or quite why. Made from the hardened saliva of swallow, it's believed to possess extraordinary medicinal powers, from improving skin tone to warding off tuberculosis, curing consumption, dysentery and malaria. The long list doesn't end there though, and it's even renowned for being an aphrodisiac.
The stratospheric price tag and prestige of Birds Nest is also due to its scarcity, and the perilous way people gather them. Found deep inside island caves down south, athletic climbers shin fearlessly up networks of bamboo scaffolding to reach the nests that lie in the deepest, highest reaches of the caves.
"The white soup is good for the skin, the red for the body and energy," the waitress imparted as this birds nest virgin ran his finger tentatively down the menu. I had set foot to Chinatown to experience it for myself, and now, sat here in Nam Sing restaurant, none looked especially appetizing or alluring. Sensing my trepidation, she lent me a tip: "the red is tastier".
What arrived, hardly allayed my fears: an unappealing bowl of translucent, off-white coloured broth, with a consistency like porridge. Alongside it came a smaller bowl of stewed fruit in syrup. The first spoon wasn't bad; warm and sweet and watery with little aftertaste.
The Verdict: The tastes of high society are often accused of being tasteless. Birds Nest Soup truly is. This delicacy left me mildly disgusted.
Slowly, the purpose of the stewed fruit dawned on me. The sweetened apricots, nuts and dates make the broth palatable, by masking the gluey consistency of re-hydrated swallow spit, a texture I with each and every spoonful came to despisex.
- Location: Nam Sing Restaurant, Phadungdao Road, Chinatown
Shark Fin Soup: What's the fuss all about
Like Beijing or Hong Kong, in Bangkok this expensive delicacy is one of the finest ways to flaunt your wealth. In the past, Chinese Emperors loved it because it was rare, tasty and difficult to prepare. Today, its popular with the Thai-Chinese population for the very same reasons, but also eaten as part of feasts to confer prestige on the meal's host, usually special occasions like weddings, banquets or clinching a big business deal.
Recent years have seen mounting controversy and consternation among environmentalists. Worldwide shark populations are quickly diminishing, and awareness about 'finning' (a torturous process where fins are removed and the still living, but incapacitated, shark is tossed back into the sea to die) growing. A public awareness campaign in the Thai print media, by Wildaid, was said to have reduced consumption here by around 25%. It reported also how high levels of mercury found in shark fin could be bad for your health, especially men. Angry restaurant owners in Bangkok's Chinatown responded with a US$ 2.7 million lawsuit, but this was later dismissed in court.
Erroneously, it's said to have medicinal properties, everything from curing cancer, enhancing appetite, to being beneficial to kidneys, lungs and bones. Some believe it's also an aphrodisiac, though there is no scientific proof shark fin has any ingredients that will improve your sex life. Undoubted though is its ability to enhance status when dining in Eastern enclaves.
Open (or close) your mind and dive in
With almost ceremonial solemnity, the dish is served in a ceramic pot with a lid, 'uncovered' at the table. The texture started out decidedly unusual and glutinous while the broth was still steaming hot, becoming oddly appealing as it stiffened somewhat whilst cooling off.
After being soaked and double-boiled for enough hours to fill a full working day, the fibrous shark fin is tender and delicate, absorbing the subtle flavours of other ingredients like chicken, ginger root, spring onion, Shaohsing wine and soy sauce. Mixed with shreds of crabmeat, the soup was thick and rich with a deep, earthy and almost fungal flavour. Yet, it was unmistakably shark-flavoured.
The soup is good; it's easy to understand why shark fin is considered to be one of the 'treasures of the sea' in traditional Chinese cuisine. But Google 'shark finning' and you're bound to lose your appetite. Photos of finless carcasses littering beaches, boat decks, and the ocean floor are plentiful and heartbreaking. Move past the emotional images, and you'll find there are two sides to the debate. Here and now, the choice is yours - but for how much longer remains to be seen.
- Location: Chinatown
- Price Range: Depending on the quality (grade of the fins), expect to pay anything between 600 baht and 2,000 baht for a portion, sometimes big enough to serve two.