Entering a Borneo emporium in 1922, American missionary Elizabeth Mershon noted that “many strange and evil-smelling articles greet the eye and the nose.”

While pungent “strings of dried rats,” “ancient duck eggs,” “dried lizards,” not to mention desiccated “beche de mer (sea slugs)” all caught her attention, what really perturbed and fascinated the pious lady were the birds’ nests.

So much so, in fact, that she devoted an entire chapter of her book “With The Wild Men Of Borneo” to them. Mershon was not the first person to find the culinary concept a trifle disconcerting. Nor, it can safely be conjectured, will she be the last.

Even by the adventurous standards of Asia’s soup bowls, the idea of eating a bird’s nest . . . well, to the uninitiated many, that’s culinary exotic with a capital X, as in X-rated eXotic.

To Lee Kin Chiew, however, nothing could be more natural. He’s been running the 90-year-old Merlin Market in Sandakan, Sabah Province, Malaysian Borneo, since his father retired.

If it’s birds’ nests you want, this is the place to come in Sabah (though if you’re strapped for time, you could also hit the shop by Gate A2 in Kota Kinabalu International Airport).

I hit Merlin’s, prior to a rather quirky expedition to visit the various birds’-nest caves of northern Borneo.

The first myth to be dispelled was what a bird’s nest looks like before it goes into the pot. I’d imagined that the nest would be cooked au naturel, complete with feathers, guano, mites, insect husks and maybe the odd shard of eggshell.

Not so. The swiftlets that make the nests dispense with such conventional avian architectural niceties as twigs and straw, and rely instead on their own congealed saliva.

This is what is cooked, and only after all the detritus has been plucked out with forceps or washed off.

The gelatinous remains come in three colors — black nest, red nest and white nest. White is the natural color of unadulterated swiftlet spit. Red nest gets its color from traces of iron in the cave walls. Black nest has feather traces. All, allegedly, have medicinal properties.

Mershon reported that they help opium addicts kick the habit. Tradition has it that they cure influenza, asthma, and are good for the complexion.

They also keep one “young and exuberant,” according to Chiew.

Recent studies in Hong Kong (possibly conducted by nest-sellers) have tentatively suggested they might even be useful in the treatment of HIV-AIDS.

This said, they are quite expensive.

White nest usually costs between $800 and $1,000 per kg. Top-grade dried white nest can fetch $4,000 per kg on the international market. They are also rubbery. And taste of nothing.

“Nests are cooked with other ingredients,” Chiew explained. In his case he likes to take his nest boiled with a little rock sugar in a special pot.

An alternative recipe is to stuff the nest into a deboned young chicken and then slow boil for 10 hours, until both bird and nest are as soft as sloppy jelly.

Drink the lot just before bedtime. “Yum !” said Chiew.

An interesting suggestion. But, if you’ll excuse the awful pun, it was one I felt was a little hard to swallow! The Chiew interview concluded, our thoughts turned to conservation prompted by the following lines of Malaysian poet Datuk Amar James Wong Kim Min on June 9, 1993:

Alas, the thieving birds’ nest collectors,
Will not give the young chicks a chance to fly
But heartlessly destroy their nests for a quick dollar,
By selling their illegal gains on the sly.

Not Milton or Shakespeare perhaps, but Min has a point.

In many parts of Borneo, too, many collectors are chasing too few nests to the ultimate detriment of both collectors and swiftlets. Poachers are also invading caves early to beat competitors — with predictably disastrous results. In some cases, swiftlets don’t even get to finish building their nests.

Gomantong cave in Sabah is bucking the trend, however. The caves are guarded by collectors, and nest collection is strictly regulated. Swiftlet populations here, according to local ornithologist and guide Robert Chong, are actually increasing.

One additional ecological twist is that swiftlets eat flying insects that thrive in forested areas.

Cut the rain forest and the swiftlets vanish, says Chong. Nests command high prices, and Chong feels that protecting the trade must involve protecting the rain forest and all the species that depend upon it, from bacteria to orangutans. Not to mention us.

At Gomantong, this is also happening. Chong calls the swiftlets “the guardians of the forest” and thinks that by creating artificial caves in other parts of the rain forest, this threatened habitat will help “pay its way” and will be more readily protected by the authorities as a result.

Gomantong cave is a typical Borneo nest-cave: huge, carpeted with droppings, decorated with both albino and other cockroaches, and home to snakes that snatch swiftlets. It smells worse than a sumo wrestler’s jock strap. In short, it is an experience, but it’s not the sort of place you’d like to spend a lifetime wobbling about on flimsy bamboo and rattan scaffolds 100 meters above a floor riddled with stalagmites and pools of rotting . . . things.

The collectors do just that. You can see them at work in both Sabah and Sarawak, though Sarawak Province has yet to get its act together conservation-wise. Looting continues.

The last word goes to the Malaysian poet (from the same poem).

Let us all who are involved — government and owners
Put the interest of the birds before ourselves
For ultimately the truth that really matters
Is to ensure that the swallows will always inhabit the caves.

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