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Mopane Worm

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Mopane Worms - Nutritious and Delicious?
Collection of Mopane worms (Imbrassia belina). Phalaborwa district, Limpopo Province, South Africa
Anthony Bannister/Gallo Images/Getty Images
"Come try, it tastes like biltong" said the grinning waiter at the Boma restaurant in Victoria Falls. It was the right enticement, I happen to absolutely love biltong. But chewing on a grub? As fortune would have it, I had been wanting to taste a Mopane worm (Imbrassia belina) for some time, and it looked like the time was now. The mopane worm is not actually a worm, but a caterpillar. It's a delicacy in some parts of Southern Africa and considered a bush food in others. But everyone agrees, it is highly nutritious and some regard it as truly delicious.

What Did the Mopane Worm Taste Like?
The Boma restaurant is a classic tourist venue set in the lovely grounds of the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. Dinner at the Boma is a legendary affair, with what looks like literally hundreds of local dishes served in buffet style, including impala terrine and sadza. A witchdoctor is available to tell your fortune by throwing his bones; dancers entertain with Shona and Ndebele acts; and then ... there's the vat of Mopane worms.

The worms were fried with tomatoes, onions and garlic, none of which really disguised the black head from the grubby, grey body. I popped it into my mouth and began to chew, and chew, and chew, and chew. The sucker was difficult to swallow and I had forgotten my water. The waiter beamed, his teeth were almost blinding in the light of the big braai fire that was roasting a tasty looking warthog. The initial taste of the Mopane worm wasn't so bad, hidden by the garlic and onions. But as I continued to chew, the real flavor became unmasked and I detected a blend of earth, salt and drywall. It wasn't very good. I did manage to swallow it finally and because this was a touristy affair, I even got a certificate to prove it. I value this certificate above the one I got for bungee jumping off the Victoria Falls bridge.

More Facts and Fascinating Information About the Mopane Worm
Most people who enjoy Mopane worms obviously do not get certificates when they eat a solitary grub. Normally, you'll see huge bags of dried and/or smoked Mopane worms in local markets throughout rural Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa and Namibia. They're greyish looking when dried (after their green guts have been squeezed out) and at first glance you might think they're a bean of some kind.

Mopane worms get their English name from hanging out on Mopane trees which are prevalent in Southern Africa. And they are not worms, but caterpillars, the larvae of the Emperor Moth. The best time to harvest them is when they are at maximum plumpness, late in their larval stage and before they bury themselves in order to re-appear as an Emperor moth. The Mopane worms like the Mopane tree, but they also feed off mango trees and other bushes. They are a seasonal delicacy, but you can also buy cans of Mopane worms soaked in brine in some local supermarkets. I looked around in vain for them at local Spars and Shoprites -- but failed to find them on my last trip to the area. Great souvenir idea I thought.

Mopane (sometimes spelled Mopani) worms are called phane in Botswana, mashonja in Zimbabwe and parts of South Africa, and omangungu in Namibia. Nutritionally they pack a punch consisting of 60% protein along with good amounts of iron and calcium. Since they require little input in the way of resources, it has become a valuable and profitable source of food and income. In South Africa it is a muli-million Rand industry. I heard complaints about the smaller size of mopane in a rural market in Livingstone, Zambia. Most likely a case of harvesting them too soon. Deforestation and over-harvesting are both issues that are affecting the supply of mopane worms.

How to Cook Mopane Worms
A common way to eat Mopane worms is to fry them with tomatoes, peanuts, chillies and onions, like my delicious specimen. Here's a decent recipe for dried mopane worms. They can also be added to a stew, boiled to soften them up, or simply eaten raw and fresh off a tree. When they're fresh, they are obviously less chewy. I have not tried a fresh mopane worm yet, but when I was a young girl in Malawi, I did used to eat flying ants fresh and they did taste better than the fried variety.

Sources and More About the Mopane Worm
The Mopane Worm -- Science in Africa
Gonimbrasia belina -- Wikipedia
Mopane Worms - Local Kitchen Blog

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