(Note: This thread was split from the Boston board at: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/8459... -- The Chowhound Team)
Agree with Karl S. Bird's nest is prized for its ability to help heal and restore chi. My mom brought a several bottles for me after I had my kids.
You can get the actual bird's nest (BTW, Bird's nest is spit from a swallow, a type of bird) all ready to consume in bottles with sugered water probably in herbal/medicine shops in Chinatown. This is probably the cheapest way to sample bird's nest for the first time. The bird's nest should be relatively whole (that is in big pieces) and not in small pieces. If possible, the bird's nest should be off-white and not have dark bits in them, which would indicate impurities. These are the usual things I look for when buying bird's nest.
I have never had bird's nest in chicken broth. Only sweet and as dessert. My mom would buy whole bird's nest and cook it in a crockpot with water, rock sugar and a little ginger.
re: Moon Pie
The main ingredient is bird saliva. It's what hold's the nest together. They are hand gathered and picked over, which is part of the reason for the cost. It is certainly available in shops here (even the supermarkets) but usually behind a counter with other expensive ingredients like Shark fin and abalone. We has it at home as a soup occasionally when I was a kid and probably for its heath-giving purposes. It was rehydrated and slightly picked over again and added to a broth made from a freshly killed chicken.
Anything that can be in the nest or comes up with when the bird regurgitates. I've seen bits of feather/fur, to twig-like material, and lord knows what else that stuff is. Birds nest gets soaked and washed before it's used in soup.
I have never had bird's nest in a restaurant, but if the OP is curious and has money to spare, he can try to find it in one of the herbal shops in Chinatown. No guarantee that they sell it, but a few stores will sell some 'hoi mei". Being so expensive, there probably isn't a large enough market to support bird's nest here. My parents buy this when they go back to Hong Kong, and my mom always insisted it's good for your skin and for preserving your beauty (not sure it's working).
Like shark's fin,, there is no taste to bird's next itself, but it's often paired with other luxurious and expensive ingredients. What you find in the canned drinks or soups is likely the low grade stuff (if you find any at all) so not sure you'll get a real bird's next experience from that.