South African Emperor moths are gorgeous creatures. Brightly colored and distinctively patterned, the adult moths appear each spring to mate, lay eggs and frolic in the South African sun.
But, as in both nature and other realms of reality, beauty doesn’t last – the splendid adult moths live but three to four days, after which they die. It is, instead, the moths’ 10?day larval stage that really matters.
The Emperor moth caterpillar – commonly referred to as mopane worms for the mopane trees on which they live – are an important source of food for the people and animals of South Africa. Women and children generally harvest the caterpillars from trees before squeezing them to remove their intestines and drying, smoking or brining them. In addition to being a sustainable, eco?friendly food source, the worms have more protein than beef or fish and include minerals such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and iron.
However, mopane worms are exceptionally difficult to come by if you don’t live in Africa. Once I decided that I needed to try caterpillars for myself, the only way I was able to get them to Boston was to first send them to my friend, Lucie, in England before she shipped them along to me.
Unsurprisingly, dried caterpillars are not the most visually appealing food in the world. About three inches long, live mopane caterpillars are patterned in red, orange, white and black. Flattened and dried, they look like pieces of tanbark at best, animal droppings at worst, as I discovered once Lucie’s package had finally crossed the Atlantic.
Though I took advantage of my roommate’s slight entomophobia to guzzle down a caterpillar in front of her shortly after their arrival, I was actually surprised when I found myself eyeing the caterpillars as a potential late?night snack a few days later. They weren’t exactly delicious, but they certainly weren’t unpleasant, either. They were crunchy enough that I could ignore the reality of what I was eating, and focus instead on their flavor – which was very similar to smoked fish, but with a slightly earthy undertone. The people of Botswana reportedly don’t eat the heads of their caterpillars, but I remained blissfully unaware of this fact, and I ate them whole (extra protein, yeah?). Just as sheer hunger likely drove African bushpeople to pluck the first caterpillars from trees, I found myself actively trying not to eat the caterpillars on the desk of my otherwise food?less room, as I was saving them for a stew.
But, about that stew. Guys, I don’t know anything about making caterpillar soup and I had a very hard time finding decent recipes online. Though the caterpillars’ tin suggested eating the caterpillars in a spicy peanut soup (a suggestion that was supported by my internet research), when I actually took the time to rehydrate the worms, prepare a vegetable?based peanut stew and then add the caterpillars, things didn’t go particularly well. My stew was thick and hearty, but its uniform texture contrasted strangely with the bodies of the caterpillars. The spicy nuttiness brought out the flavor of the worms beautifully, but the worms never seemed like anything more than an afterthought. Worse, once rehydrated, the caterpillars looked and felt more like, well, caterpillars. When I ate my soup, I felt dozens of caterpillar feet on my tongue – disconcerting, to say the least. I wished that I could have eaten them with tomatoes and yam chunks or something.
That’s not to say I wouldn’t eat mopane caterpillars again – I absolutely would. In addition to being tasty when dried, the worms would also probably be a great in a different stew, maybe one with a greater variety of textures. I just need a better recipe.
Melissa MacEwen is a junior majoring in biology and English. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.