GWANDA, Zimbabwe (AP) — In Zimbabwe, mopane worms are a staple part of the diet in rural areas and are considered a delicacy in the cities. They can be eaten dry, as crunchy as potato chips, or cooked and drenched in sauce. When harvest season for the worms began recently, I decided to document the process, and it somewhat stomach-turning. But the worms can be mighty tasty and they're very nutritious. Here's the scoop on mopane worms.
THE MOPANE WORM
The worm is the large caterpillar 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. It has also burrowed into literature, finding its way, for example, into the pages of Alexander McCall Smith's series about The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, set in neighboring Botswana. At least one of the characters munches on dried mopane worms.
After six weeks of rain, the mopane worms cling to mopane trees in rural Gwanda, an arid cattle-ranching area in southern Zimbabwe. Amanda Ncube normally fetches firewood to sell and looks after the family cattle, but when it's worm-harvesting season she joins other women and a few men in collecting the worms and piling them into buckets. The worms are as long as a hand and as thick as a cigar. Ncube carefully plucks them from the lower branches before climbing partway up the tree to shake off the higher worms. The more stubborn ones are pried loose with a long stick. The worms excrete a brown liquid once they make contact with skin, leaving the pickers' hands wet and slippery. As they harvest the worms, the women and men move from one tree to another until their buckets are full. A thick slimy green fluid comes out as Ncube carefully squeezes out the entrails from a mopane worm she has just plucked from a tree. During harvest season, the porches of mud-walled homes are covered with thousands of worms, laid out to dry in the hot sun.
At the local market, mopane worms are popular with residents who buy a cup or two of them and eat them immediately. The market is abuzz with activity, with most stalls strategically displaying the delicacy so people cannot miss them. Vendors offer free samples. The mopane worms are graded according to size and the area where they were harvested. Picky buyers ask about their provenance before buying, favoring worms from one district over another because of barely discernible — at least to all but the connoisseurs — differences in taste.
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