Zheng He travelled to the West during the Ming Dynasty. According to Legends, Zheng He's oceangoing fleet met a big storm on a voyage and was forced to berth at a barren island in the Malay Archipelago, where they had a serious shortage of food. They found cubilose on the cliff by chance, and Zheng He ordered his subordinates to pick the cubilose, wash it, and cook it with clear water for food. A few days later, the crew had rosy complexions and felt refreshed. After Zheng He returned home, he presented cubilose to Emperor Yongle. Since then, cubilose has been soaring in price and become an indispensable dish in the imperial diet.
Ranking the first of among the “eight treasures” through the past Chinese dynasties, and recommended by traditional Chinese doctors as a nutritious food for “nourishing vitality, cubilose has always been a favorite in the Chinese people’s dining table. With the improvement of living standards, cubilose has appeared at the homes of common people and is no longer an unreachable "high-end" luxury.
Although Chinese people have a long history of eating cubilose, there are still different awareness regarding how to select, distinguish and cook cubilose. Zhang Yaqin, President of the Guangdong Bird's Nest Industry Association, told Food2China magazine in an interview: not all the nests built by swallows can be called " cubilose ".
ONLY NESTS BUILT BY SWIFTLETS ARE " CUBILOSE "
All Swallows build nests, mostly with mud, grass and their own saliva as materials. Those kinds of nests, often found in the corners of rural roofs, are not edible, and therefore can only be called “birds ' nests”. Swiftlets are different, whose nests are made solely of their own saliva. Only Swiftlets’ nests can be called " cubilose "
Swiftlets live along warm and humid subtropical coasts and on the surrounding islands. During the breeding season, pairs of male and female swiftlets will choose sites to build nests. Adult swiftlets spawn three times a year and begin to build nests 30 days before laying eggs. At first, they will come to the sites again and again and spit their saliva on the rock wall to build a semicircular outline, and then the nests are built up according to the outline. The whole process takes about 30 days. After the baby swiftlets can fly by themselves and fly away from the nests, farmers will harvest the nests.
The harvested cubilose is 15 to 20 centimeters in diameter and looks like a white translucent half-moon cup. About 30 days after the baby swiftlets leave the nests, parent swiftlets will build nests for the second time. Because of their super memory, they often build nests again and again at the same old sites.
According to the difference of nesting sites, cubilose falls into two categories: cave nests and house nests. The nests built by swiftlets in caves and on coastal cliffs are called cave nests. Cave nests are found in less-polluted wild caves in forests and not affected by weather change, and they can more easily absorb the minerals in the rock walls and from nature, so they have fewer impurities, unique taste and particularly rich nutrition, which makes them highly sought after on the market.
However, due to overexploitation in early years, the living environment of swiftlets has been severely damaged, resulting in a significant decline in the yield of cave nests. With the increasing awareness of environmental protection, house nests have gradually replaced cave nests. House nests refer to nests built by swiftlets in human-made “swiftlet houses”. Swiftlet houses are not different from ordinary houses in appearance except that they have some round holes for ventilation. There are also windows at the top of swiftlet houses for the birds to fly into and out of the houses. In addition to building swiftlet houses, how to "allure swiftlets into the houses" is also a skilled task. Swiftlets are sociable creatures, so people play the sounds of swiftlets to allure them into the houses. Meanwhile, temperature and humidity are controlled and no light is allowed in the houses to create a livable environment for the swiftlets.
From cave nests to house nests, what has been changed is only the living environment of swiftlets. Their living habits are not affected. The combination of the natural forest environment and artificial house technology not only protects swiftlets but also guarantees cubilose production. With protection from humans, swiftlets have increased reproduction. Cubilose is harvested timely to avoid nutrition loss and ensure stable quality.
After cleaning and air drying, cubilose is available for sale on the market. Cubilose has different shapes and processing methods. According to the shapes, there are cup cubilose, strip cubilose, shred cubilose, corner cubilose, etc., but there is no difference in their nutrient content. Because swiftlets build their nests in different positions, even cup cubilose can be divided into several categories such as big triangle, triangle cup, and flat cup. The grade of cup cubilose is determined by the completeness of its cup shape. Extra white cup cubilose, which features tight fibers, is the best grade and more expensive.
Intact cup cubilose may get crushed during processing or transportation. The strip parts are called strip cubilose, whose taste is not as good as cup cubilose. Corner cubilose is the parts that swiftlets use to fix both ends of their nests. It is harder and therefore chewier. The soak time usually takes more than ten hours. Shred cubilose and debris cubilose are usually made into cubilose cakes for sale.
FIVE STEPS TO DISTINGUISH BETWEEN GENUINE AND FAKE CUBILOSE
China is the largest cubilose consumer. However, due to the low yield in the country, most of the products need to be imported from Southeast Asian countries.
Indonesia, known as the "Country of Thousand Islands", is the most suitable habitat for swiftlets. 85% - 90% of cubilose in the world comes from Indonesia, followed by Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. In recent years, the Chinese government formulated cubilose standards and stopped temporary measures of cubilose control, which leads to rapid increase of cubilose consumption. According to statistics, China’s total import of cubilose was 81.4 tons in 2017, more than the sum of the previous three years.
Adulteration is hard to avoid with such enormous import. Part of the cubilose enters China through improper channels and its quality and safety are not guaranteed. So, how to select genuine high-quality cubilose? There are several steps: observing, smelling, feeling, burning and tasting.
Observing – first, observe the color. Natural cubilose is milky white, a little yellowish, and transparent. Bleached cubilose is particularly white and it’s hard to see any tiny fluff. Natural cubilose cannot be 100% clean. There is inevitably some black fluff in it. The cubilose which is especially white and has no black fluff is chemically bleached. Second, observe the shape. High-quality cubilose is usually half-moon shaped and has uneven crevices and clear and compact texture, while artificially processed cubilose has dense streaks, which appears too neat and orderly to be natural.
Smelling - good cubilose has a slight fishy, musty and even "ammonia" smell. The smell of chemicals mostly means adulteration.
Feeling – high-quality cubilose feels dry and fragile. Soak it in water for a while and take out a fine fiber. It has excellent elasticity and tenacity and is not easy to break. Fake cubilose fibers, on the other hand, has weak elasticity and will become paste after being rubbed with fingers.
Burning – we can also testify if cubilose is genuine or fake by burning it. When burning, natural cubilose has a smell of burned hair and does not produce any loud noises and sparks.
Tasting -- natural cubilose emits the fragrance of protein after cooking and has a smooth and delicate taste.
These steps can be used to determine if cubilose is genuine or fake. However, no matter how rich the experience is, it is not as reliable as professional testing data. Therefore traceability labels for cubilose are introduced. In 2012, The General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) signed protocols for inspection, quarantine and sanitary conditions with the Indonesia and Malaysia governments respectively, which requires building a traceability system for cubilose imported to China.
At present, many cubilose manufacturers have registered on and used the traceability platform of the Chinese Academy of Inspection and Quarantine (CAIQ). Their products will be labeled with QR codes. As long as they are scanned by WeChat or Weibo, the whole trace information can be obtained. In addition, we can get a anti-counterfeiting code by scraping the traceability labels. With more and more traceability platforms entering the market, cubilose manufacturers will have more choices. In 2016, Guangdong Bird's Nest Industry Association introduced "Professional Bird's Nest Brand". By scanning the QR code, consumers can get not only detailed information of cubilose products, but also systematical and comprehensive knowledge of cubilose, such as its value, latest research results and brand information. Complaint service is also provided, if necessary.