Thanks go to Annamaria for both the idea and the title of this blog. It all started with a discussion around so called mopane worms which are regarded as something of a delicacy in parts of Africa and are a very important source of protein for large numbers of rural people. Actually, they are the caterpillars of a species of emperor moth (Gonimbrasia belina) which is widespread in areas where the mopane trees (Colophospermum mopane) grow. Elephants are very partial to mopane as well, and the caterpillars don’t win that argument!
|Trees stripped by caterpillars|
Much of the low country of southern Africa is covered by mopane trees and so the moths are common. In fact, the caterpillars can eat a variety of trees and shrubs so they are not restricted to mopane country, but it is their favorite. I recall visiting a bushveld camp where – in midsummer when the trees are normally lush with green foliage – every tree was completely bare. Every scrap of every leaf had been eaten by the caterpillars. It looked as though whole forests would die, but, no, within weeks the trees had sprouted new leaves and looked as vigorous as before.
|Enthusiastic worm collector|
So we're talking about poor rural people collecting caterpillars because they have nothing else to eat, right? Wrong. Harvesting and selling mopane worms is a multi-million rand industry in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The caterpillars are not farmed but collected when they have reached near maturity from the areas where they occur naturally. It's so enthusiastically pursued that there are questions about sustainability. In the season, the caterpillars are harvested, guts removed, and then they are dried in the sun or lightly smoked. It's estimated that South Africa alone trades three million pounds of dried mopane worm annually, and that Botswana's involvement in the industry nets it ten million dollars a year. And the numbers add up too. Only three pounds of feed (mopane leaves) are needed for one pound of mopane worms; for beef it’s ten to one and cattle aren’t partial to mopane. What’s more the caterpillars are good fat protein, rich in iron and other minerals.
Dried mopane worms can be eaten raw as a crunchy snack, often a little salt and spice is added in the drying process. When it comes to cooking them, however, they are soaked for several hours to rehydrate them – one recipe I saw recommends beer for this – and then stewed or fried. And, yes, like many other interesting food sources, they taste a bit like chicken. Here’s a recipe if you want to try this at home and you have some dried mopane worms handy. It serves four people if you can find another three sufficiently adventurous participants:
One pound dried mopane worms;
three tomatoes, diced or 1 can of tomatoes;
two onions, diced;
1/2 teaspoon turmeric;
three fresh green chilies, finely chopped;
three cloves of garlic, finely chopped;
tablespoon of fresh ginger, finely chopped.
Soak dried worms in water for 3-4 hours to reconstitute.
Fry onions in groundnut oil on medium heat until translucent. Add turmeric, chilies, garlic and ginger. Fry for about five minutes. Add tomatoes and cook on low for about 20 minutes until spices are well blended.
Add drained worms and cook until they have softened a bit but still are a little crunchy. Salt and pepper to taste.
Serve with pap, the local staple mielie meal porridge. Enjoy.
And HERE you can see the way restaurants do it. (By the way, the name is pronounced mo–pa-nee, not the way the announcer does it.)
Moving beyond mopane worms, the UN estimates that over 2 billion people eat insects as a normal part of their diet rather than as an occasional curiosity. It is particularly widespread in Africa and Asia, and even has its own name – Entomophagy. In fact, the UN estimates that the only way we will be able to feed future generations, extrapolating population growth and global warming, will be by bringing insects centrally into the human diet.
Take a look at some of these interesting options:
|Deep fried crickets|
|Locusts. The boy doesn't look convinced...|
|I'm not convinced...|
|This looks more promising|
If you'd like to try dried mopane worms for yourself, come to the Murder Is Everywhere panel at Bouchercon and join us at the signing for a snack!
Michael - Thursday