Mopane worms – a staple since ancient times
Boiled, dried or fried – Mopane worms are food for all palates. A type of caterpillar, the worms are highly nutritious & have provided the people of Southern Africa with a reliable & high quality food source for thousands of years. The name & spelling may vary between people & places, but the worms themselves remain comfortingly the same. In a continent that has battled poverty & famine, they have literally been life savers. Drying them extends their availability between the short seasons of plenty.
Mopane worms : Quick facts
The name is derived from the Mopane Tree (Colophospermum mopane ) that the animals feast on. They eat leaves from other trees, but are especially fond of Mopane Tree leaves.
Mopani/Mopane worms are known by many names in this area of diverse people, languages & cultures
The worm is the caterpillar of the Emperor moth, Gonimbrasia belina. The moths live for a few days during which time they mate, lay eggs then die.
After hatching, the larva grow into caterpillars that eat, grow & moult. They are best harvested just before pupation.
Historically, they were an excellent & readily available seasonal food for humans & birds who eat them for sustenance.
Recent commercialisation & profiteering has caused over utilisation & dwindling supply
Mopane Worms as Human Food
Traditionally, Mopane worms are hand-picked from the trees when they are large & fat. The innards are squeezed out before the worms are dried in the sun/smoked to preserve them. They can be eaten in their dry state (seasoned to taste with salt & pepper), or soaked to reconstitute & cooked to feed families. The former is common in urban areas, while cooking after soaking is more efficient for feeding rural families.
Mopane worms have turned up in speciality restaurants from Johannesburg to Paris. The growth in popularity is likely driven by famine & poverty in the areas where they occur, a worldwide trend to eat natural foods, an urge to eat what our ancestors ate & the popularity of survival documentaries in the media. Commercialisation has put this food source under pressure, but re-establishing it back to abundant sustainability is relatively simple. This food source is a lot more gentle on the environment than beef or other protein production.
Mopane Worms in the UK & Worldwide
Mopani / mopane worms can be bought from South African speciality shops in the UK for around £3.20 per 100g. This seems expensive (because it IS), but a little does go a long way. I have not yet come across them in more general African grocery shops, but I expect to at some point. Like mealie / maize meal & many other items, I do expect to be able to source them cheaper. I do not eat them myself, but I do love the aroma when the cook of the house has them on the stove.
Mopane Worm – Stew Recipe
This recipe was difficult to put down here because the cook of the house changes his recipe depending on what he has to hand, & what he fancies on the day.
Mopane worms (soaked in water & plumped up), 1 large potato, morogo, 1 large onion, 2 tomatoes, 1Tsp finely chopped green chillies, salt, pepper, 1 Tsp turmeric, 1 Tsp finely chopped garlic, coriander to taste, butter
Fry the onions in the butter until they go clear. Add chillies, garlic & turmeric to the onions & cook lightly until the flavours blend. Add the mopane worms, chopped potato & diced tomato with some water to cover. Allow a few minutes for the ingredients to render down, then add morog/morogo & turn the heat down. Cover the pot pan & leave it to cook for about 30 minutes. Add fresh coriander before serving.
Over sadza / pap
Notes: In the UK, any green leafy vegetable will substitute for morogo but nettles are the closest. Add what you like, leave out what you don’t like.
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