Found across the Southern African bushveld, mopani worms are a source of income for many rural families. This delicacy is also rich in nutrients and it can be enjoyed as part of many a dish.
Known by many names in different languages, the mopani worm is considered to be one of Southern Africa’s most emblematic culinary specialities. In Xitsonga, it’s known as masonja. In Northern Sotho, it is called mašotša, and across the border in Botswana, people who speak Kalanga know it as mahonja.
For Phuti Ngoasheng Kabasa, the owner of snack company Mopani Queens, the delicacy represents many things, including conservation and health. “[They] are very nutritious and are high in protein, dietary fibre, saturated fats and carbs. They can be incorporated as part of a healthy diet”, she says.
“Mopani worms also have a smaller carbon footprint compared to the everyday protein sources such as beef and chicken. They are gentler on the environment as they are seasonal and harvested during days of abundance (rainy season).”
Known scientifically as Gonimbrasia belina, the mopani worm is actually a caterpillar and is named after the mopani tree, which it prefers to feed on. Mopani worms are common in semi-desert areas or bushveld, and burrows underground when winter approaches.
Over winter, the caterpillar turns into an emperor moth, living for up to four days after transforming.
In South Africa, the popular edible creatures are found in Limpopo and Mpumalanga. Kabasa says that, despite this, most of the best quality insects are not harvested here. “What normally happens is that rural communities don’t necessarily sell to people like me that are resellers. They sell to middlemen, who add a markup and sell to resellers. And this was made worse by the fact that the best Mopani worms are sourced from Botswana, where about 70% of our worms come from.”
From traditional to mainstream
Mopani worms have been a traditional African delicacy for as long as people can remember. Due to its high levels of protein and minerals, the mopani worm is considered to be an important part of the diet of rural communities. For Kabasa, this is another reason more South Africans should eat the delicacy. “Mopani worms are part of an indigenous food culture for a lot of people in Southern Africa. So, by adopting eating of Mopani worms, one helps in preserving centuries old indigenous food practice. ”
Most harvesters in Southern Africa are rural women and children. They take the worms from the branches of the mopani trees and degut them. The worms are then washed, and cooked using water and salt, then sun-dried. Sun-dried or smoked caterpillars have a shelf life of up to one year.
There are many people in South Africa who still balk at the idea of eating insects. Despite this, mopani worms are becoming more and more commercialised every year. According to this 2013 report, there is an estimated 9.5 billion mopani worms harvested annually in Southern Africa, with the industry valued at 85 million US dollars.
The delicacy provides a much-needed source of income for rural families, with most selling up to 80% of their harvest yield, but as mopani worms are generally harvested from the wild, so parts of Southern Africa face the challenge of over-harvesting.
Give it a try!
Mopani worms are not just limited to rural cuisine. For chef Amanda Manyatshe, they are a delicious addition to any meal. “There is absolutely nothing I dislike about it. Mopani worms are really easy to prepare. You get them dried, and you can choose to rehydrate them or enjoy them dried. It is a favourite of mine when I miss Venda or want to eat less meat.”
Manyatshe says that, while she does not often get requests for mopani dishes, when she does, she gets to exercise her creativity. “A deterrent for some may be that they are eating a highly textural food. If you’re in your head too much, this could make for an interesting experience.”
Manyatshe has the following tips for cooking mopani worms:
- Soak them in hot water for 10-15 minutes and clean before boiling them. This will get rid of any sand or grit that may be on them.
- Then boil them for another 15 minutes, change the water, then boil again for 20 minutes. Like with mogodu, you want to avoid that crunch of sand. They will be clean and rehydrated at this point so you can then either fry them up, add to a sauce or stew or salt and enjoy them plain.
- Add pap and morogo to the plate for a full meal.