Mopane worms: A Southern African delicacy.

Matomani, masonja, mashonzha, amasonja or mopane worms – a staple source of protein and nutrients for many rural communities in Southern Africa, a delicacy in Limpopo, and a scary thought for many European taste buds. The principal producers of mopane worms are Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and the South African provinces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga.

Even though the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations published an Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security report in 2013, mopane worms have been a source of nutrition for as long as people can remember. South Africa trades 1,6 million kilograms of mopane worms annually, and dried mopane worms have become a multi-million rand industry.

This hawker in Tzaneen sells her biggest bucket of mopane worms for R100.

The mopane worm is a pretty, brightly coloured caterpillar with little spikes on its back that feeds mainly on the leaves of the mopane tree, hence its English name. It is harvested some weeks into the rainy season, just before it goes into pupation and ultimately turns into the large Emperor moth.

The caterpillars are hand-picked by mostly women and children straight from the trees in the Mopane woodlands. Once collected, somebody gets the “wonderful” job of squeezing the gut out of the caterpillars before they are sundried, which preserves them until the next harvest. Although traditionally the mopane worms are harvested for personal use only, it has now grown into a thriving industry providing an income for many rural communities.

History of the dish

There is no documented history of the mopane worm dish in Zimbabwe. However, a stone-age pit discovered at Pomongwe Cave in Zimbabwe showed a deposit of dried mopane worms that are believed to be almost 6,000 years old.

European explorers and early settlers to southern Africa in the 19th century documented the collection and consumption of the caterpillars, many adding that they found it a “filthy” practice.

According to Food and Agriculture Association (FAO) the mopane caterpillar is one of the best-known and most economically-important forestry resource products of the mopane woodlands in southern Zimbabwe, Botswana and northern South Africa.

It has been estimated that annually 9.5 billion mopane larvae are harvested in Southern Africa’s 20,000kmof mopane forest worth US$85 million, of which approximately 40 per cent goes to producers who are primarily women from poorer, rural areas.

Research has found that mopane worms are not only good for eating from a nutritional standpoint, but they also may be key to maintaining the ecological balance of the dry bush they inhabit.

Vernacular names

The mopane worm is so-called in English because it is usually found on the mopane tree, Colophospermum mopane. Other vernacular names for the caterpillars include:

  • Botswana
    • Kalanga: mashonja
    • Tswana: phane
  • South Africa
    • Northern Sotho: mašotša (colloq)
    • Venda: mashonzha
    • Tsonga: matamani or masonja
    • Southern Ndebele: iinnondo
  • Zambia
    • muyaya (believed to be the mopane worm)
    • finkubala
  • Zimbabwe
    • Northern Ndebele: macimbi
    • Shona: madoramasodya or mashonja
    • Kalanga: mahonja
  • Namibia
    • Ovambo: omagungu
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo
    • Kongo: mingolo

The Latin name is sometimes given as Imbrasia belina, rather than Gonimbrasia belina

How to cook mopane worms

The worms are harvested during the rainy season, after which they are cleaned, sun-dried for preservation, and made available for consumption throughout the year.

The tasty worms can be eaten dry and crispy as a snack, or can be drenched in sauce, or added to porridge made from maize – a staple food in Zimbabwe. Most people prefer to fry the worms with a combination of tomatoes, garlic, peanuts, chillies, and onions. Some of the recipes to cook the caterpillar can be found online.

Mopane worms can also be added to a stew, boiled to soften them up, or simply eaten raw and fresh off a tree. When they are fresh, they are less chewy and their distinctive and unique flavour is undiluted by other ingredients.

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Arinze Stanley Egbengwu
Hadithi Africa