Mopane Worms

I’m back from South Africa, safe and (relatively) sound.  I apologize for the lack of posts; cell-phone coverage was frustratingly inconsistent and wi-fi almost non-existent.  It was nearly impossible to find a strong enough signal to upload a picture, let alone email an entire post.  And, well – I was on vacation, on a fairly hectic scheduled dictated by soccer; I’m embarrassed to admit how many days went by in which I consumed nothing but Simbas and Savannah Dry Cider (the latter of which I so need to import to the States).  All, however, is not lost. Despite my annoyingly picky palate, I do like to try new foods, especially those that are local, wild, seasonal and/or important to the local culture.  The mopane worm scores on all counts.

Bowl of dried mopane worms to the left of our campfire.

A group of us went on safari in Mapungubwe National Park, about 6 hours north of Johannesburg near the borders of Botswana and Zimbabwe. Mapungubwe (don’t bother asking me how to pronounce it; every time I did the locals literally doubled over in laughter. I stick with “map-ooon-googly” now) is a relatively new park, known for it’s historical sites and for leopards (for which we looked in vain).  We stayed at the glorious Tshugulu Lodge where Florence and her team of cooks catered for most of our group during our stay.  Being the afore-mentioned picky eater, I opted out of the catering option (mostly because of the heavy prevalence of beef in the local diet) which ended up being quite fun as I got to cook in the kitchen with the “ladies,” trading recipes and cooking tips and getting to know a little bit about their lives up in this remote corner of South Africa.

Google tells me that the mopane worm, so named because of it’s prevalence in the mopane tree, is the adult larvae of the Mopane Emperor Moth, or Imbrasia belina, a saturniid lepidopteran which is found in northern South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia. The worm is an important source of protein in the south African bush; despite a short season of availability, the worms are collected in abundance in season and dried for eating year round.  Google tells me that the harvest is in February or March, although the cooks told me that harvest time is in May and there were still fresh worms in the trees when we visited in late June. The harvest does seem to depend on rainfall, so perhaps drought has increasingly delayed the appearance and/or maturation of mopane worms over the years.

Mopane worms are collected from the trees (there was one in the compound of Tshugulu Lodge), eviserated by squeezing out the gut & contents, and boiled in clear water or brine. Most harvested worms are dried for preservation, but some are prepared fresh by sauteeing in oil, tomato and garlic or peri-peri spice.  I believe that is how our fresh worms were served; I was not brave enough to try one, as the texture looked… less than appetizing.  I did, however, try a couple of the dried worms; they weren’t bad, really. The locals liken them to peanuts, but they were more mild; crunchy, quite salty and inoffensive, more like a soy nut I think.  I won’t be searching them out as a daily snack, but if I lived there and they were free in the trees, I might harvest some and dry them with chile or peri peri spice for a snack.

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