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GWANDA, Zimbabwe – In Zimbabwe as well as most parts of southern Africa, mopane worms are a staple part of the diet in rural areas and are considered a delicacy in the cities. They can be eaten dry, as crunchy as potato chips, or cooked and drenched in sauce. I decided to document the harvesting, preparation, sale and consumption of the worms, and found the preparation somewhat stomach-turning. But the worms can be mighty tasty and they're very nutritious. Here's everything you always wanted to know about mopane worms but were afraid to ask.
THE MOPANE WORM
The worm is the large caterpillar of the Gonimbrasia belina species, commonly called the emperor moth. It is known as a mopane worm because it is found chomping the leaves of mopane trees after it hatches in summer. It has also burrowed its way into literature, finding its way, for example, into the pages of Alexander McCall Smith's series about The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, set in neighboring Botswana. At least one of the characters munches on dried mopane worms.
After six weeks of rain, the mopane worms can be seen clinging to, and feeding on, the leaves of the mopane trees in rural Gwanda, an arid cattle-ranching area in southern Zimbabwe. Amanda Ncube normally fetches firewood to sell and looks after the family cattle, but when it's worm-harvesting season she joins other women and a few men in collecting the worms, which are as long as the width of two hands and as thick as a cigar. She slowly plucks them from the lower branches before climbing partway up the tree to shake off the higher ones. The more stubborn ones that cling to the leaves and branches are pried loose with a long stick. The worms excrete a brown liquid once they make contact with a human hand, leaving the pickers' hands wet and slippery. As they harvest the worms, the women and men move from one tree to another until their buckets are full. A thick slimy green fluid comes out as Ncube carefully squeezes out the entrails from a mopane worm she has just plucked from a tree. While some worms are prepared on site, other harvesters wait until they are back home where they squeeze out the entrails of the worms before leaving them to dry for a few days in the hot African sun. During harvest season, the porches of mud-walled homes are covered with thousands of worms, laid out to dry.
At the local market, mopane worms are quite popular with residents who buy a cup or two of them and eat them immediately. The market is abuzz with activity, with most stalls strategically displaying the delicacy so people cannot miss them. Vendors offer free samples. The mopani worms are graded according to size and the area where they were harvested. Picky buyers ask about their provenance before buying, favoring worms from one district over another because, to the connoisseurs, worms from one area taste different from those from another.
The mopane worm is a healthful and cheap source of nutrition.
A Zimbabwean nutritionist, Marlon Chidemo, says the worms are high in healthy nutrients and contain three times the amount of protein as beef. He says eating worms is less taxing on the environment than consuming beef because it takes far fewer leaves to produce worms than it does feed to produce the same amount of beef.
Dried mopane worms have become a multimillion-dollar industry, even exported to countries like South Africa and Botswana. They can be found in African restaurants in Paris.
Once they've been dried out, they can be eaten straight away. They can also be cooked in a spicy or peanut butter sauce and served with pap, a maize porridge.
Having grown up eating the mopane worms, I have never had the opportunity to see how they harvest and prepare them until now. While the process is rather disgusting, the worm can be a pleasure to eat as a starter or a side dish. The taste is reminiscent of salty potato chips. Malawi's first President Hastings Kamuzu Banda preferred his just like that, simply dried and then eaten as a snack like chips. Banda was known for carrying around pocketsful of worms that he would also offer to children.
Here is a Congolese recipe that AP's special Africa correspondent Michelle Faul describes as "one of the tastiest" for mopane worms.
Mopani Worms for four people.
Ingredients: 500 grams 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, called sadza in Zimbabwe. Enjoy.