Locally known as “infinkubala” and sometimes as “ifishimu” in Zambia, the Mopane worm is an African delicacy that has literally “wormed” its way into the hearts (and bellies) of people across Southern Africa. These caterpillars are a popular dish in Zambia and are said to be extremely nutritious.
In this article Conservation Lake Tanganyika shares some interesting facts about the Mopane worm and walks us through the process of preparing this dish, from harvesting right down to cooking it. Not tried it yet? Read on! (Disclaimer: Not for the faint hearted)
About the Mopane wormScientifically known as Imbrasia belina, the Mopane worm is the large caterpillar (or larva) of the Gonimbrasia belina species, commonly called the emperor moth. It’s called a Mopane worm because it feeds on the leaves of Mopane trees after it hatches in summer.
The Mopane worm is black, peppered with round scales in indistinct alternating whitish green and yellow bands, and armed with short black or reddish spines covered in fine white hairs.
Like most caterpillars, the Mopane worm’s life cycle starts when it hatches in the summer, after which it proceeds to eat the foliage in its immediate vicinity. As the larva grows, it moults 4 times in its 5 larval stages, after which the Mopane worm is considered most desirable for harvesting (for the pot).
Harvesting the Mopane wormMopane worms are hand-picked in the wild, often by women and children. In the bush, the caterpillars are not considered to belong to the landowner (if any), but around a house permission should be sought from the resident. When the caterpillar has been picked, it is pinched at the tail end to rupture the innards. The picker then squeezes it like a tube of toothpaste or lengthwise like a concertina, and whips it to remove the slimy, green contents of the gut.
The traditional method of preserving Mopane worms is to dry them in the sun or smoke them, whereby they gain extra flavor. The caterpillars are traditionally boiled in salted water, then sun-dried. This dried form can last for several months without refrigeration, making them an important source of nutrition in lean times.
The industrial method is to can the caterpillars (usually in brine). Tins of Mopane worms can be found in rural supermarkets and markets around Southern Africa.
Ready to eat!The Mopane worms are high in nutritional value. Whereas the iron content of beef is 6 mg per 100 grams of dry weight, these caterpillars pack a whopping 31 mg of iron per 100 grams. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), Mopane worms are also a good source of potassium, sodium, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, zinc, manganese and copper.
Dried Mopane worms can be eaten raw as a crisp snack. Alternatively, Mopane worms can be soaked to rehydrate, before being fried until they are crunchy, or cooked with onion, tomatoes and spices and then served with nshima, or chips I guess.