Insects, worms, and all kinds of creepy and crawly things… But nice and juicy and nutritious. You see them everywhere now that the rainy season has started and eating some of these insects and worms are nothing strange to Namibians, especially when you have more than 700,000 inhabitants relying on government drought food aid.
Some of these rather ugly creatures are very tasty and topping the list of delicatessens for Namibians are mopane worms. But also highly favoured among Owambo-speaking people is the fatty and nutritious okashenye (flying white cricket). And then there is the rhinoceros bug, the stink bug and, of course, edible “lekka locusts.”
About 1 million of the 1.4 million described animal species on earth are insects, and millions more are believed to exist. Contrary to popular belief, of the 1 million described insect species, only 5 000 can be considered harmful to crops, livestock or human beings.
Eating insects has now been put in the spotlight by a new study.
Eating bugs may not seem appetising, but, according to John Coupland, PhD, CFS, Professor of Food Science at Penn State University and spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), insects are a sustainable alternative protein source with nutritional benefits that cannot be ignored. For example, a cricket is 65 percent protein whereas beef is about 50 percent. Insect protein contains a good range of amino acids and they also contain vitamins, minerals, unsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Many insect species have less than 5 grams of fat per serving.
Insects can be pan-fried, boiled, sautéed, roasted, or baked with a bit of oil and salt. They can also be made into flour and used for bars, breads, crackers, and cookies.
People describe the taste of insects as nutty with a similar flavour to shrimp and chicken. Eating bugs could provide as much or more iron and other nutrients as consuming beef.
The idea of eating bugs has created a buzz lately in both foodie and international development circles, as a more sustainable alternative to consuming meat and fish. Now a report appearing in ACS’ Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry examines how the nutrients – particularly iron – provided by grasshoppers, crickets and other insects really measures up to beef. It finds that insects could indeed fill that dietary need.
Edible bugs might sound unappetising to many Westerners, but they have long been included in traditional diets in other regions of the world, which are now home to more than two billion people, according a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. The report also notes that about 1 900 insect species have been documented as a food source globally. Insects have varying levels of iron, calcium, copper, magnesium, manganese and zinc. Minerals including calcium, copper and zinc from grasshoppers, crickets and mealworms are more readily available for absorption than the same minerals from beef. The results, therefore, support the idea that eating bugs could potentially help meet the nutritional needs of the world’s growing population, the researchers say.
Cleaned and toasted in a little oil with garlic, lemon and salt for flavour, many insects are a common food ingredient among not only indigenous communities but also some urban populations.
The most commonly eaten termite species are the large Macrotermes species. The winged termites emerge after the first rains fall at the end of the dry season, from holes near termite nests.
The frequency of insect consumption around the world is poorly documented.
Insects can be found in abundance throughout the African continent and when staples are scarce they become important sources of food. During the rainy season – when hunting game or fish can be problematic – insects play an important role in food security. Caterpillars are especially popular during the rainy season, although their availability can vary even within the same country.
Markets in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, boast an abundant year-round supply of caterpillars, and the average household in Kinshasa eats approximately 300g of caterpillars per week. It has been estimated that 96 tonnes of caterpillars are consumed in the city annually.
Consumption of the mopane worm by far exceeds that of other caterpillars: 70 percent of Kinshasa’s 8 million inhabitants are estimated to eat the caterpillars, for both their nutritional value and their taste.
The mopane worm is found in woodlands in Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and northern parts of South Africa. Local knowledge of the insect’s ecology and biology in some rural communities is extensive. Its distribution is largely correlated to that of its principal host, the mopane tree (Colophospermum mopane). The mopane caterpillar is bivoltine in most areas; that is, two generations are produced each year. Like many other edible insects, mopane caterpillars are not merely “famine foods”, consumed in times of food shortage. Although the caterpillars are important sources of nutrition in lean times, they also form a regular part of the diet.
Collecting, processing, trading and consuming the mopane caterpillar is an integral part of local cultures, but it is especially a livelihood strategy among marginalised groups. The caterpillars are collected by hand – primarily by women and children – and then degutted, boiled in salted water and sun-dried. Dried mopane caterpillars will last for several months and can be a valuable source of nutrition in times of stress. Harvesting and trading the caterpillars also provides important income for many rural families; this is often the prime incentive for harvesting.
Throughout southern Africa, it is not uncommon to find people eating stink bug nymphs and adults. In southern Africa, some are considered delicacies. Stink bugs are consumed in Malawi, South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
The edible grasshopper (Ruspolia differens), formally known as Homorocoryphus nitidulus vicinus, is a long-horned grasshopper of the Tettigoniidae family. It is a common food source in many parts of eastern and southern Africa. The grasshoppers are deep-fried, used as a cracker ingredient and fermented to make a cooking sauce. Mopane worms are actually caterpillars and not worms, which somehow makes them more creepy to some people. The caterpillars are often fried and eaten (disguised) by other ingredients such as garlic, tomatoes or onion. They are also often dried, smoked or soaked in brine.
A brave tourist described it as being incredibly chewy, and once all the other flavours surrounding it disappeared, earth, salt and drywall seemed to be the underlying flavours pervading their taste buds.
So eating a mopane worm takes a bit of guts, giving you a great incentive to try it and show off to all your friends! “Nyom nyom nyom”, a crunchy snack, or not?! Lekka local locusts are available in abundance. Not only are they nutritious, but kosher as well! Cooking them is simple, drop them into a pot of boiling water, rinse and roll them in flour, coriander seeds, garlic and chilli, or any spices of your choice. Then you can either deep fry, or shallow fry them. They can also be fried and covered in chocolate.
So what do they taste like? A mixture of chicken schnitzel, toasted sunflower seeds and prawns…mmm with such a variety of tastes, it seems like you are going to have to try one for yourself when on a Namibian safari.