You know something is precious to you if it has a nickname. What more if it has multiple nicknames! It's a great testament to the value of bird's nest in the eyes of our ancestors, especially since some of those names have stuck for centuries. Some nicknames can get really fancy though. Let's find out more about the tried-and-tested nicknames for bird's nest so that you don't fall for just any marketing gimmick!
The Generic Name: Bird's Nest
Bird's nest started becoming a royal delicacy for Chinese emperors and nobles around the 6th century (in comparison, we're now in the 21st century!). Therefore, although the English word for it is “bird’s nest”, which is a general term that also confusingly refers to any nest made by any bird, the Chinese name is much more accurate: yanwo, or 燕窝, which literally translates to “swallow’s/swiftlet’s nest”. As you can guess from the translation, the bird’s nest we eat are produced by the swiftlet, also known as a swallow. The meaning is crystal-clear!
Indonesian records of bird’s nest are also straightforward, calling it “sarang burung walet”, “burung walet/walit” being the swallow bird. Due to similarities in the Malay languages used in Malaysia and Indonesia, this term is sometimes used among Malaysian locals as well.
In recent years, English documents have attempted to make a clearer distinction by calling the bird’s nest we eat “edible bird’s nest”, or EBN. Although this has caught on in the academic community, Malaysians still call it “bird’s nest”.
Bird’s nest is so valuable that it is also compared to precious metals. The nickname white gold is actually a combination of the “white” colour of the most common bird’s nest type, and the metal “gold”. As such, the white gold nickname here isn’t really referring to the alloy white gold that has become a popular alternative to pure gold jewellery.
Like pure gold, bird’s nest is difficult to source, dangerous to harvest, and tedious to clean and prepare, hence the parallels. Bird’s nest is the edible equivalent to gold in the trading world.
Though bird’s nest never attained the currency status enjoyed by gold at one point, it was an informal “currency” used to curry favour with Chinese nobles and emperors. Today, the value of gold has surpassed the value of bird’s nest. Despite this, bird’s nest is still among the most expensive ingredient money can buy.
If you’re looking to eat gold for the sake of feeling fabulous, though, bird’s nest drinks will taste much better and be more nutritious than gold leaves!
Caviar of the East
Now we come to a nickname that compares apple with apple! Where “white gold” compares bird’s nest against inedible metal, “Caviar of the East” is a direct comparison to a delicacy that’s as precious in the West as bird’s nest is in the East.
Caviar traditionally refers to salt-cured roe (fish eggs) harvested from wild sturgeons in the Caspian and Black Seas, although it can also refer to the roe of other fish such as salmon, trout, or carp. Some parties and countries insist that true caviar only comes from Beluga, Ossetra, and Sevruga sturgeons.
Caviar has been documented as a prized delicacy for Byzantine Greek aristocrats and nobles, sometime in the 10th century. That makes its popularity almost as old as bird’s nest! Where bird’s nest tends to be made into a dessert or supplement, caviar tends to be used as a garnish or spread. Small role, big effect, because the caviar is the star of any dish that uses it, just like bird’s nest.
It is no wonder that bird’s nest has earned the nickname “Caviar of the East”. (But no, sadly, caviar isn’t called “Bird’s Nest of the West”. How unfair is that?)
The fanciest nickname for bird’s nest hardly sounds like an everyday English word, and that’s because it’s not an English word at all. It actually has Latin roots. The word cubilose is derived from the Latin word “cubile”, which means bed or nest. Cubilose refers to the special saliva swiftlets use to form their cup-shaped nests. Specifically, this cubilose is used to form edible bird’s nest.
Cubilose is found in all edible bird’s nests regardless of type, but it is most often associated with the rarest and most expensive type of bird’s nest: the red or blood bird’s nest. Red bird’s nest can command five-figure prices in Malaysia...a value which us average Malaysians will need a long time to save up. Luckily, we can buy bird’s nest by pieces, and not by kilogram!
These are the most commonly-used nicknames for edible bird’s nest today. Some are obvious, others are less so, but now that you know them all, you’ll be less confused going forward.
Are all these nicknames too complicated? Don’t worry, they only apply to raw bird’s nest. Cooked bird’s nest can be called bird’s nest soup or bird’s nest drinks - very simple, very straightforward, no risk of confusion.
Stick to prepared bird’s nest drinks like GeGe’s Freshly Boiled Bird’s Nest to keep life simple!