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bugs - it's what's for dinner


Entomophagy probably provided a large part of the nutritional requirements of the human race for many thousands of years. In various regions of Sub-Saharan Africa, ants, beetle grubs, caterpillars, grasshoppers, locusts, and termites are caught in the wild and eaten.

The common methods of preparing insects are boiling and frying. They are also smoked or dried to preserve for future use. Fresh or preserved, they can also be included in the common African soups and stews, usually along with greens and hot peppers, sometimes with a little meat.

The Luba (or Baluba) people of south-central Congo have a proverb about the utilty of children which attests to the consumption of insects: Kuatshila muana mpasu lelu, ne yeye ne a kukuatshila mukuabo malaba. "Catch a child a grasshopper to eat today and he'll catch you another grasshopper tomorrow." (quoted from The Ponds of Kalambayi by Mike Tidwell; New York: Lyons & Burford, 1990). Another proverb, a tongue twister, from the Yoruba people of Western Africa, indicates that insects may not always be the most desirable food: Iyan mu ire yo; iyan ro ire ru. "When there is famine the cricket is fat" (that is, is considered good enough to eat); "when the famine is over the cricket is lean" (i.e., is rejected). (The Yoruba-Speaking peoples of the Slave Coast of West Africa: Their religion, manners, customs, laws, language, etc. by Alfred Burdon Ellis; London: Chapman and Hall, Ltd., 1894).

Ants are collected when they take wing during migration. They are prepared thus: Remove wings, and wash ants in cold water. Add cleaned ants to a pan with a small amount of boiling water. Cook until water is evaporated. Stir butter, ghee, or oil into pan and fry the ants for a few more minutes. Stir butter, ghee, or oil into pan and fry the ants for a few more minutes. Salt to taste. Serve with Baton de Manioc, Fufu, Ugali, or boiled Plantains, or rice.

A simple recipe for caterpillars or termites: In salted water boil until tender a pound of fresh, dried, or smoked caterpillars (or fresh termites, wings removed). In a separate pot, boil greens (spinach, collards, or similar) until fully cooked; adding hot peppers, cayenne pepper, salt and black pepper to taste. Serve the caterpillars over a bed of greens.

A recipe for Caterpillars with Groundnut Sauce calls for two to three pounds of dried caterpillars; a few tomatoes, an onion, and a red chile pepper (chopped); palm oil; and groundnut paste (homemade peanut butter). First, soak the caterpillars in warm water for a few hours, then rinse and drain. Crush and mix together the tomatoes, onions, and pepper. Heat the oil in a deep pot. Fry the tomato/onion/chile pepper mixture. Add the groundnut paste, diluted with water. Stir. Add the caterpillars. Simmer for thirty minutes. Serve with boiled Plantains, or Rice.

Grasshoppers and locusts are prepared in a similar manner: Remove wings and legs from the insects. Rinse in cold water. Add insects to boiling water and cook for twenty minutes or until tender. Strain water away. Stir butter, ghee, or oil into pan and fry the insects for a several more minutes. Salt to taste. Serve with Baton de Manioc, Fufu, Ugali, or boiled Plantains, or Rice.

Mopane Worms, caterpillars that feed on the mopane tree, are collected by rural people in southern Africa. They are usually dried and often sold in markets. Dried Mopane Worms are prepared by washing and rinsing them in water. Then they are steam-cooked with a small amout of water for several minutes, allowed to dry, and then fried in oil and served with a tomato sauce. Another way of preparing dried Mopane Worms is to soak them in water for several minutes, then rinse them. Fry onions in butter or oil. Add the worms, and a chopped tomato and chile pepper. Cook until everything is tender. Both of these dishes are served with mealie-meal or sadza, similar to Ugali.

Jean-Pierre Hallet

insects contain, weight for weight, at least twice as much animal protein as the finest red meat

Jean-Pierre Hallet (1927-2004) was born in the Belgian Congo and lived in Africa until he was of school age. (His father, André Hallet, was a noted painter known for his paintings of Congo and Rwanda.) After completing his education, Hallet worked as an agronomist in the Belgian Congo government. He developed an interest in the Efé (pygmy) people of the Ituri Forest, and became an expert on Efé culture and language. He established The Pygmy Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the Pygmies' lives and culture. His book, Congo Kitabu (Random House, 1964) is an autobiography of his life in Africa.

Initially I hesitated when confronted with a dinner of simmered worms wrapped in mokode leaves, grilled mushrooms with caterpillars on the side, or roasted bananas garnished with snails. But, after all, Africans feel exactly the same scandalized revulsion for a ripe Camembert cheese. So I plowed into the frightful concoctions, and was shocked to realize that I actually enjoyed some of them. Apparently, the old maxim is true: there is no sauce like hunger. We had some game—antelope, monkey, porcupine or aardvark—but on the whole our diet consisted of starchy vegetable supplemented by what fastidious people call vermin. Pygmies have always been an insect-eating people—and insects contain, weight for weight, at least twice as much animal protein as the finest red meat. But while the Pygmies had been conditioned to thrive on their peculiar bill of fare, I had not; and for a while my life seemed to consist of one stomach ache after another.

Other African gastronomical excerpts


you may eat any kind of locust, katydid, cricket or grasshopper

Eating (certain) insects is okay with God. John the Baptist is depicted eating locusts in the books of Matthew and Mark.

Leviticus 11: 20-24

All flying insects that walk on all fours are to be detestable to you. There are, however, some winged creatures that walk on all fours that you may eat: those that have jointed legs for hopping on the ground. Of these you may eat any kind of locust, katydid, cricket or grasshopper. But all other winged creatures that have four legs you are to detest. You will make yourselves unclean by these; whoever touches their carcasses will be unclean till evening.

David Livingstone

A large caterpillar, called 'Nato,'

David Livingstone, in Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (London: J. Murray, 1857), describes roasted caterpillars as a treat.

[on the road to Bamangwato (or BaNgwato, an area around Serowe, Botswana)] A large caterpillar, called "Nato," feeds by night on the leaves of these [acacia] trees, and comes down by day to bury itself at the root in the sand in order to escape the piercing rays of the sun. The people dig for it there, and are fond of it when roasted, on account of its pleasant vegetable taste. (Across the Kalahari Desert)

John Hanning Speke

devouring the white ants

John Hanning Speke, in Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile (London: J. Murray, 1857), writes of a woman who was fond of ants.

July 24th [1862] . . . The . . . women [in their capital of Uganda] brought us pombé, and spent the day gazing at us, till, in the evening, when I took up my rifle, one ran after Bana to see him shoot, ... but the only sport she got was on an ant-hill, where she fixed herself some time, popping into her mouth and devouring the white ants as fast as they emanated from their cells . . .
(Where the Nile is born)

Philippe Wamba

a large mass of wriggling caterpillars

Philippe Wamba, the child of an African-American mother and a Congolese father, wrote Kinship: A Family's Journey in Africa and America (New York: Penguin Putnam/Dutton, 1999) in which he describes his mother's arrival in her husband's homeland and the opportunity to learn to prepare one of his favorite dishes.

Though there was no welcoming committee of assorted Africans cheering the return of a New World cousin at the airport, my mother's first impressions of Kinshasa were positive. She and Remy joined my father at the home of some friends in a large government house in a beautiful suburb. The wife of my father's friend, also a teacher, was very kind to her, teaching her to cook Congolese dishes (including cassava leaves), taking her on trips to the market, and introducing her to neighbors. On one occasion, my mother's new friend emerged from the kitchen with a plate full of small, oily cylinders of fried meat, explaining that this was one of my father's favorite dishes. Assuming they were made from beef or lamb, my mother eagerly asked to be taught how to prepare the little snacks. Her host obliged by leading my mother into the kitchen, reaching into a bucket, and pulling a single grub from a large mass of wriggling caterpillars that she had bought live in the market. She held it in place on a cutting board and deftly slit it lengthwise, its guts bulging yellow through the long cut, then plopped it into a pan of hot oil. My mother, suddenly less anxious to work on her Congolese cooking skills, declined an invitation to try to duplicate the performance and politely excused herself. (The Joining of Africa and America)

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