Whiff of Nicobar in your soup | india | Hindustan Times
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Whiff of Nicobar in your soup

The next time you order bird nest soup at a five-star hotel or splurge on that designer perfume, spare a thought for the Nicobari tribals behind your luxuries.

india Updated: Jan 01, 2006 00:29 IST

The next time you order bird nest soup at a five-star hotel or splurge on that designer perfume, spare a thought for the Nicobari tribals behind your luxuries. The lingering smell of the perfume and the perfect soup cooked in chicken broth would have never reached you had it not been for the wiry people of the islands.

The Andamans is home to the Hawabil bird — one of the many birds whose nests are used in soups — and the soup is a delicacy in Thailand, China, Indonesia and now, even Delhi's plush Chinese restaurants. Strangely enough, the Nicobari people do not fancy the dish at all though they do hunt caves for the nests — each nest weighs around 25 grams and is made from the saliva of the bird. The nests cost around Rs 50-55,000 per kilogram on the international market. For a good harvest, tribals have to get at least 100 such nests as each weighs only 25 grams.

The Nicobari tribals have traded in bird nests and ambergris, secreted by the white sperm whale, with Thailand, Maldives, Myanmar, Indonesia and even the Arabs, for years. "The trade finds mention even in Marco Polo's accounts," says Samir Acharya, who heads the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology.

The heady smell of the perfume is due to the resinous ambergris excreted by the whales. Known since ancient days as a powerful aphrodisiac, the secretion is what gives your perfume that lingering smell. "It can make smells last longer even though its own smell is bad," says Samir Acharya,. The whale spends its winters in the Indian Ocean and its summers in Antrartica. It feeds on giant squids. But the claws of the squids are too rough for the intestine of the whale. To create a film over the claws, the whale secretes ambergris.

"When the whale dies and its body decomposes, ambergris shoots up to the sea level and is collected by the tribals. The whale may vomit it from time to time as well," Acharya said. The price of the secretion is Rs 1.5 lakh per kg on the international market.