Considered a true delicacy, the mopane worm is widely consumed in rural areas of southern Africa. Being highly nutritious makes it an important source of protein for a lot of households in these areas. Scientifically known as the Gonimbrasia Belina, the mopane worm is in fact the brightly coloured spiky caterpillar of the Emperor moth. They are one of the larger caterpillars, nearly as long as a finger and as thick as a cigar.
For the majority of the people in the western world, eating insects or eating bugs is welcomed with feelings of aversion and disgust. Yet for a lot of other people, entomophagy or the consumption of edible insects and edible bugs is part of their staple diet.
In 2013, the FAO (Food & Agriculture Organisation of the UN) published a study about the consumption of insects and recommends it as a nutritious and ecologically friendly source of food. This means that even in the western world, the role of edible insects in a healthy diet could slowly increase in importance.
Mopane worms in African culture are considered a true delicacy
In English language they are called mopane worms because it feeds on the leaves of the mopane trees. Locally they are called macimbi and mashonja in Zimbabwe, phane in Botswana and omagungu in Namibia.
Mopane worms are edible insects
The mopane worm is an edible caterpillar or one of the edible worms and it feeds mainly on the leafs of the mopane tree, hence its name. During harvest time which takes place a few weeks into the rainy season, hundreds of families hand pick them from the trees. The innards of the caterpillar worm are carefully squeezed out after which they are dried in the sun, smoked or boiled for preservation. In certain cases they are also preserved in cans. The dried mopane worms, also called mopani worm, can be stored for usage throughout the year and are mostly sold at local markets in rural areas or in supermarkets in the bigger cities.
Mopane worms nutritional value – a high source of protein
For most families in rural villages in Southern Africa, it is an easily obtainable and cheap source of protein. The mopane worms contain three times as much protein as beef, giving it a lot of benefits of eating mopane worms. On the other hand, it is also considered to be a million dollar industry in southern Africa where the worms are exported to some european countries. Mopani worms are eaten in among others Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and certain regions of South Africa.
How cook mopane worms
The mopane worm can either be eaten dried as a crispy snack, or fried to perfection with a pinch of salt. Another cooking method for this traditional Africa food is to cook the mopane worms in a delicious stew with either tomato, onion and chilli or a peanut sauce. It is often served with sadza and green vegetables. Sadza, also known as pap in South Africa, is a maiz porridge which is a staple food in Southern Africa.
The eye of the worm is literally the eye catcher and will be eaten as well, except in parts of Botswana were the eye is removed before consumption.
What do Mopane worms taste like?
The Boma restaurant, part of the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge in Victoria Falls serves many mouth watering local dishes and fried worms is one of them. For the brave ones that try at least one, they will receive a special certificate.
I tried my first mopane worm in The Boma restaurant, so I got the certificate. The worm was grilled and looked very well done. It tasted like very well done steak. Not bad, but I didn’t try a second one, at the time. The Boma restaurant is located by the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge.
A few years later I visited a rural village in Zimbabwe with some tourists and we were invited to join them for a lovely traditional meal. We got served sadza (maize porridge) with lot’s of mopane worms bought at a local market. The whole village was very eager to see if we would like this dish and were standing around to watch us taking our first bite. I still remembered the worms not tasting too bad in the Boma restaurant, so I didn’t mind eating them again.
But we each got at least 15 of these creepy crawlies on a plate which was maybe a bit much for my taste buds, especially when the one big black eye was looking at me and it still seemed to be alive, fried or not. I think I managed to eat about 5 worms, and then invited the rest of the village children to join me. Full of joy they attacked the plate and were very happy for this delicious meal…and so was I.
For the ones wanting to try a true local African dish, treat yourself to a delicious meal of mopane worms, cooked to your liking. Mopane worms are definitely one of the bugs you can eat.