HANOI — In Vietnam, where the average income is $151 a month, Mai Vu and husband David Nguyen routinely spend $250 on edible bird’s nest.
The couple account for the soaring appetite among Vietnam’s young and upwardly mobile population for one of the world’s most expensive foods, congealed saliva of Asian swiftlets. The country’s expanding middle class hungers for healthy food. Bird’s nest is believed to ward off diseases and feeds a growing demand for luxury products.
‘‘It’s one of the most valuable products one can give to those who have everything,’’ said Vu, 28, who works at an international bank in Hanoi and was shopping for bird’s nest for her toddler daughter at a new, upscale mall. ‘‘You want to impress people.’’
The demand for bird’s nest, once reserved for emperors and their courts, has created a global market with annual revenue as high as $5 billion that caters to Asia’s growing wealthy consumers, said Tok Teng Sai, president of the Federation of Malaysian Bird’s Nest Merchants Association. Vietnam is racing to catch up with Malaysia and Indonesia, the region’s top producers of the delicacy, and cash in on the demand.
‘‘People have a lot of money now, especially people in China,’’ Tok said.
Known as the “caviar of the East,” edible nests sell for about $500 to $700 a pound wholesale and about $1,500 a pound retail, according to Le Danh Hoang, founder of Ho Chi Minh City-based NutriNest.
‘‘A lot of people are making a ton of money,’’ said Loke Yeu Loong, group managing director of Malaysia’s Swiftlet Eco Park, which produces an array of bird’s nest-based products, from coffee to skincare,.
Indonesia produces about 70 percent of the world’s bird’s nest, followed by Malaysia with 20 percent, Tok said.
In Vietnam, demand for bird’s nest is spawning a cottage industry that has attracted investment from VinaCapital Group, the nation’s largest fund manager, and helping mint new millionaires. Provincial governments are also jumping in to set up bird’s nest production zones to spur jobs and exports.
In mid-2011, VinaCapital invested $7.5 million in a bird house in central Vietnam with about 100,000 birds, one of the nation’s largest, said Dang Pham Minh Loan, VinaCapital’s deputy managing director. The firm recently increased its stake to 65 percent in the company, Yen Viet Joint Stock Co., she said.
The edible nests are as much as 70 percent protein, one reason aristocracy has consumed the delicacy for thousands of years, according to Massimo Marcone, an associate professor of food science at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.