They are plump, wiggly, and colourful, and whether you call them Imbrasia belina, mopane worms, or just caterpillars, these insects make for a savoury snack. They are a seasonal delicacy in many southern African countries and when fried, caterpillars have a delicately crunchy exterior, yet they remain tender and meaty inside.
In Zambia’s capital city, Lusaka, and at other sidewalk stalls and bustling markets throughout the country, dried caterpillars are found piled high, always in a place where locals can’t help but be tempted to buy them.
Those that can’t wait will purchase a few scoops and devour them on the spot but if you’re not feeling that adventurous, there are other ways to try caterpillars (and maybe even enjoy them too)! Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Before they reach your plate, or even the market stalls, these caterpillars are hand-picked from mopane, mango, and other trees. Their entrails are squeezed out, they are boiled in salted water, and then left to dry for a few days in the hot sun. For added flavour, they can instead be smoked.
- Their taste is described rather varyingly as nutty, leafy, like beef jerky, or like chicken. It’s best to keep an open mind.
- Dried caterpillars can be eaten as is or soaked in water to rehydrate, then fried in oil until crispy. In both cases, just sprinkle on a bit of salt and start snacking.
- In Zambia caterpillars are fried with onion and tomato to make a stew and served together with nshima, a very thick porridge made from finely ground cornmeal. You can shape the nshima into a ball, make an indentation with your thumb, and use it to scoop up the caterpillar stew.
- In northern Zambia, the Bemba ethnic group boil spinach and collard greens, add hot peppers, cayenne pepper, salt and black pepper to taste, and serve boiled caterpillars on a bed of these greens.
Known not only for the abundance of caterpillars they produce, the northern provinces of Zambia are remote and home to a treasure chest of waterfalls. None may be as grand as Victoria Falls in southern Zambia but beauty can also be found down the roads which are less travelled.
All the waterfalls are considered by locals to be sacred and if you happen to need directions along the way, they will gladly share the traditional folklore and legends with you. Stay a little longer and they may just share their caterpillars too.
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