Squeamish about what you eat? Get over it!
That’s the message I got as I was about to have my first experience biting into a mopane worm at Indaba 2011 in Durban, South Africa, recently. As what is, in fact, a caterpillar (or was in a former life) got close to the point of no return, where I would have to choose to bite of its head or its tail, my face apparently involuntarily squished into an expression of mild revulsion.
Eva Mahape, who runs a bed and breakfast in Pretoria, was having none of it. No worming my way out of this one. “It’s psychological. Don’t scrutinize and analyze. Just eat it,” she barked. Then added: “They’re nutritious. They have protein and the skin gives you roughage.”
Mrs. Mahape had the good sense to stand in line at the buffet while I was snapping pictures. As mopane worms are considered a delicacy by many, the supply was destined to run out.
Suitably reprimanded and a little ashamed even though her clinical description does nothing to whet my appetite — but she is, after all, sharing mopani worms off her plate with me — I breathe, and bite.
And what I experience can best be described as like a well-cooked but not crispy prawn (large shrimp). Inside it is juicy. What I see looks black, like black blood and real entrails, and my stomach wants to turn.
But it turns out that what I’m seeing, which has a gently smoky flavor, is tomato and onion.
I learn this from Chef Isaac Mngoma, who tells me: “The local ladies (of Limpopo province) go out and catch them in the trees. Then they squash the insides out and leave them for several days to dry. At that point you can eat them like biltong (the South African equivalent of beef jerky). Or you can keep them until you want to boil them in salt and water to reconstitute them.”
Mngoma says he popped the mopane worms, served as part of his buffet, into boiling water with a little salt and cooked them with onion and tomato. He has chosen to serve them with spinach cooked with onion, flavored with salt, butter and cream.
Mrs. Mahape seeks me out at some point to see if I’ve survived. “Think about it,” she says. “Everyone is eating them. You think you want one. Then you think you don’t want one. But they’re healthy. There’s nothing wrong with them.”
And Mandla Masuku, managing director of a tour company based in Mbabane, Swaziland, agrees. He has just tried his first mopane worm. “My friend came to Swaziland and tried our food: Village chicken with peanut sauce; blackjacks and okra leaves. So he wanted me to try Venda food. He wanted me to share his mopani worm experience.”
Masuku finds they taste like vegetables on the inside “but fleshy on the outside. I’m go back for more!”
Good luck, because by the time he gets there, they’re all gone.
The incredible edible mopane worm — a cash cow disguised as a caterpillar?
I learn on a mopane research website that the worm is in fact a caterpillar that feeds on the mopane tree, and other indigenous trees the immediate vicinity. It is considered a rural — and increasingly, urban — delicacy. And it is an important resources for poor farmers and landless people in the region.
The trade in mopane worms is now worth several million dollars every year, but the arrival of the worms is unpredictable and ephemeral and, sadly, large-scale traders benefit more than local communities — something the research project hopes to address.
The mopane worm harvest lasts for about three weeks (the exact date being dependant on rainfall). Harvesting, mostly by women, is done by shaking the mopane trees or by cutting infested branches.
Like most caterpillars, the mopane worm’s life cycle starts when it hatches in the summer, after which it proceeds to voraciously eat the foliage. The larva grows through several stages, transforming along the way into the mopane worm, which, if not harvested, burrows underground to pupate into an adult moth. This happens during the southern hemisphere winter. The moth emerges in early summer (November or December), lives three to four days, during which time it seeks to mate and lay eggs. And then the cycle starts all over again.
- Learn more about Limpopo province online.
- Fly from San Francisco to South Africa with South African Airways. SAA flies to South Africa from Washington and New York and has an alliance with Jet Blue for anyone flying from the West Coast. Read about the SAA-Jet Blue link here.