Thursday, October 23, 2014

Protein is Everywhere

Mopane "worm"
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!

Emperor moth

Mopane leaves
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


  1. Don't try worming your way into my nutritional program, thank you very much. I'm a stodgy old fart, set in my ways, and I'm not about to start consuming something that my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents wouldn't find familiar. Although... my grandfather and great-grandfather chewed plug-tobacco, so maybe that's not such a good rule of thumb after all...

  2. Michael, it is getting close to lunch time in NYC, but some of these photos act as appetite suppressants for yours truly. A park ranger offered me mopane worms in Namibia, where they were being harvested during my visit to Etosha. My courage failed me. I first encountered insects as food as a child. Shortly after my father returned from his duty with the US Marine Corps in China, he bought some chocolate-covered ants and grasshoppers for the family to try. My mother--who was afraid of insects--forbade my bother and me to eat them. I admit that I found a way to nibble at coating without actually consuming any of the crunchy creatures.
    I am not sure why I should be squeamish. I love lobster. Think what it must have been for the first human who looked at what resembles a giant bug in its live state and said "Yum."

    1. Termites in a chocolate fondue is an excellent meal in the bush.

  3. There are times I feel truly blessed to be a veggie ;)
    Reading this blog was one of them.

  4. Why is it every time one is offered something to ingest that instinct says, "uhh, uhh," it's accompanied by the phrase, "It tastes just like chicken?" Call me old fashioned, but I want my chicken to look like chicken.

    1. I promise, Jeff, if you refuse to eat the caterpillars, I will not call you "chicken."

    2. Secretly, Annamaria, I know you're just trying to egg EvKa on.

    3. Actually, everyone's got it wrong. Since chickens (and birds in general) are some of the last surviving descendants of the dinosaurs, it all tastes like T-Rex to me.
      And honestly, Jeff, you trot out those puns like a rooster at punrise

    4. I have to say I m in shock! It's a good thing I am not a betting man - I would have lost my socks, or underwear, or whatever (oh yes, shirt) on a bet that Michael would have a blog with a recipe in it. No way, never, nada, nooit!

  5. I get the message. So no one comes to our panel? I have to say, these little fellows taste really good...for chicken.

  6. Just call them pizza spears, Michael. No one will be the wiser.

  7. Not only did I include the recipe, but I was tempted to try it out! I didn't want to deprive my MIE colleagues, but since they are voting with their feet, maybe Congolese Mopane Worms with Ginger is on the menu here...