Collagen supplements and collagen-rich bone broth are the latest natural beauty craze in the United States as we seek to turn back the clock with younger looking skin. This important structural protein promotes healing in the body and helps strengthen hair and smooth skin. You’ll find it in the bones and connective tissue of animals, including pig’s feet, along with certain plants and fungi. The jury’s still out on the proven efficacy of eating collagen, but it can’t hurt, right?
I’ve taken to blending Vital Proteins collagen peptides into my morning smoothies although I’m a little skeptical about the collagen gummies. While collagen’s nutritious benefits may be a new trend among the beauty-obsessed in the West, the women of Ancient China have consumed exotic collagen-rich foods for thousands of years for glowing, porcelain skin. These gelatinous ingredients don’t tend to have much flavor on their own, but here’s where to try them in Shanghai, where the women are long thought to be the prettiest in all of China.
This edible swiftlet’s nest is made with bird saliva and is the most prized and expensive of these beautifying foods. The nests must be hand-harvested from high cave corners, a dangerous and arduous process. Nests are usually white or light yellow, but rare red nests also exist. Bird’s nest is normally served in a sweet or savory double-boiled soup and high-end Cantonese and Chinese restaurants will almost always have an entire page of the menu dedicated to bird’s nest preparations. Yong Yi Ting at the Mandarin Oriental Pudong serves imperial bird’s nest in a viscous supreme broth while Yi Long Court at The Peninsula serves superior bird’s nest soup with red king crab meat. Both offer generous portions that are worth the high price – as much as $80 USD for one small bowl.
The most unique preparation of bird’s nest soup I’ve had would be at Jin Xuan at The Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, Pudong. Here, Executive Chef Daniel Wong serves a boiled bird’s nest soup with crab meat and crab yolk, which colors the soup a vibrant yellow orange, a similar shade to a duck egg yolk, and adds a rich savory umami flavor.
Bird’s nest is more difficult to locate in the United States, and I’d be wary of the authenticity and origins of anything you might find at a shop in Chinatown. I did see individual baby food jars of bird’s nest for sale at Costco over Chinese Lunar New Year though and promptly bought as many cases as I could fit in the shopping cart. Not nearly as much bird’s nest as in the photos above, but I guess for $5 a jar, you only get a few slivers.
These swim bladders help larger fish stay afloat and can be sourced from a variety of fish, including totoaba off the Pacific Coast of Mexico. Male fish bladders are thicker and a little chewier while female bladders are more tender. Like bird’s nest, it’s sold dried in Traditional Chinese Medicine shops and must be rehydrated before eating, making it soft and slippery. Also like bird’s nest it’s often served in soups, although it can be sautéed with vegetables and mushrooms too. Larger, thicker pieces of fish maw are considered higher quality and contain more collagen than thinner, shredded varities. Yi Long Court braises premium fish maw with black mushroom and broccoli in oyster sauce.
Sea cucumbers are actually animals, not vegetables. They’re scavengers on the ocean floor and resemble dark cucumbers or fat worms. Often they’re braised along with abalone or vegetables, like the Japanese sea cucumber at Yong Yi Ting, served in thick abalone sauce. Jin Xuan offers a double dose of collagen braising fish maw with a whole prickly sea cucumber in double-boiled chicken stock, while Dragon Phoenix in the historic Fairmont Peace Hotel braises sea cucumber ‘hong shao’ style with soy, ginger, sugar and star anise.
Sometimes called “poor man’s bird’s nest,” snow fungus looks a little like a loofah when you buy it dried. After rehydrating and making it into a soup, it’s like eating little silvery clouds. You can stir-fry it with vegetables like any other mushroom, although its texture is finer and more delicate than most. In Chinese cuisine it’s often used in dessert too. Keep it simple with a refreshing chilled soup garnished with goji berries, red dates or osmanthus and sweetened with a touch of honey.
This resin secreted from the bark of a peach tree comes in translucent amber crystallized clumps. The irregular shaped rocks transform into chewy pillows when rehydrated and are most often served in soups or as bowls of jelly. At Dragon Phoenix, double-boiled peach gum is served in a dessert soup with snow fungus, Asian pear and kumquat.