Ou Seathong sells one of the most expensive foods in the world: edible bird spit. At her shop on Street 182 in Phnom Penh, she sorts edible bird nests on the shelves. Hundreds of years old, the Chinese delicacy is made of the congealed saliva of Asian swiftlets.
Business had been good, with Chinese tourists coming to her shop and buying the nests as souvenirs before going home. But a year ago, the Chinese government put a spoke in her wheel – a ban on imports of Cambodian bird nests.
“My clients, the majority of them, came from China,” she said. “Commonly, in Cambodia there are not many people who know about bird nests, but it is well-known in China and Vietnam,” she said.
“Now Chinese authorities banned the import and it is difficult to find a market.”
It’s still some of the most expensive spit around, but the ban has caused prices to drop, with Cambodian bird nests costing around $1,500, and imports from Malaysia being worth up to $2,000 per kilogram. In the Chinese tourist heyday, the Cambodian nests went for around $2,200 per kilogram.
Processed into food or beverages, the white nests and red nests are supposedly rich in nutrients and believed to have health benefits.
“The majority of my clients are pregnant women and elderly who need more nutrition,” Seathong said.
She added that a bird’s nest can last for up to four years before losing quality if preserved well.
Before operating the shop, around seven or eight years ago, she bought some nests from other local raisers and some which were imported from Malaysia.
The motivation for Seathong to start the business stemmed from her Chinese parents, who used to cook food from the nests when she was young. At the time, prices soared to $5,000 per kilogram.
But following her decision to start a shop, more and more people built houses for birds to collect their nests, and prices plummeted before being resuscitated by the Chinese tourists.
She said that even today, the number of bird-nest raisers is increasing, along the coastline, National Road 5 as well as in Phnom Penh. Generally, however, the bird’s nests collected in coastal areas are of better quality.
Seathong’s relatives live in Kampot and have three houses for birds to live in and make nests. They collect about eight kilograms for three months, and get the remaining supplies from Koh Kong and Preah Sihanouk provinces.
Because of the difficulties she faces today, Seathong said she does not intend to operate a processing factory for producing beverages from the nests because it’s expensive.
“It is high-class product,” she said. “Right now it is difficult to sell.”