Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Botswana - Mopane Worms

“Mom, why are you making us weird?” John said this after I picked the kids up from school and told them we were going to make caterpillar stew. I saw it as a family bonding experience that we’d talk about for years, but John seemed only half interested. It made me realize that it was a good thing I was starting this eating the cuisines from around the world project now. If I had waited a year or two it would simply have been too humiliating. I was pushing my luck as it was.

A year ago John would have been thrilled to make caterpillar stew and would have bragged about it to his whole class. Still, I had to give him credit. When I first received the mopane worms from a friend (who shall remain anonymous for fear of custom agents knocking on her door) I opened the package and John popped one in his mouth with hardly giving it a thought. I ate one, too, but after careful consideration.

Mopane worms (which are caterpillars) are a species of the moth that feeds mostly on the mopane tree. They are a popular snack in Botswana and packed with protein. The caterpillars are hand picked in the wild and then pinched at the tail and squeezed to expel the green contents of the gut.

To preserve the mopane worms they are dried in the sun, or are smoked to give them additional flavor. The caterpillars are also canned in brine and sold in supermarkets in South Africa. (I received my mopane worms dried)

Christa told me that in some restaurants in South Africa they serve caterpillar stew and you will get a certificate if you eat it. Both her mom and her husband have gotten such certificates.

Our Botswana meal was like an episode of Fear Factor. It was not only gross to eat, but doubly gross to watch others eat. I took a few bites with whole chewy caterpillars and I could barely stand the thought or the bitter, leafy taste. Kevin took a few bites too and announced he could eat almost anything. He was proving it that night and I wondered if this was what he had in mind when he had asked me to marry him years ago.

John was enjoying himself. He kept taking spoonfuls – for pure theatrics sake – until I begged him to stop. How often do you hear a mom saying to her son, “Please, don’t eat your dinner!”

Julia, too, bless her heart, took a spoonful with a juicy caterpillar on her spoon.

With bowls still full of soup, the caterpillar stew was tossed. Then, I got out a pan and made grilled cheese sandwiches that we happily devoured. I promised the kids to give them certificates for their gallant effort in trying the Botswana stew.

This Botswana mopane worm experience made me think of the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy. It was released in 1980 and is set in Botswana. It is the story of Xi who lives happily in the Kalahari Desert with his band of Bushmen until, one day, a Coke bottle is thrown out of an airplane. The Bushmen find many uses for this bottle, but since there is only one, the Bushmen begin to fight over it. So Xi decides the bottle is evil and goes on a journey to the edge of the world to throw the bottle away. On his quest he encounters Western civilization for the first time, and we see Westerners from his viewpoint.

Of course, Westerners look ridiculous from his point-of-view, and perhaps we are. In our family, I’m not helping by making us weird. But it’s all in a sure attempt to explore the world; to know new things about other countries and to eat the foods we never thought we’d try.

Botswana, a landlocked country in Southern Africa bordered by South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe - and the setting of one of my favorite book series The #1 ladies detective agency – is the sort of country, we in the West find fascinating. It’s a place where the Bushmen have lived as they have since the Stone Ages. Today it has a fairly stable government and the economy is growing rapidly. The country has a world- renowned diamond industry, and is doing quite well in tourism and manufacturing.

My neighbor asked me, “Wasn’t there any other more appetizing Botswana dish?” I’m sure Botswana has some wonderful food. Beef and goat are the most popular meats, and many fresh fruits are available as well. I could have picked something more to our liking – like grilled warthog, suggested Christa - but the mopane worms were more interesting (and a bit easier to make than grilled warthog, I suspect).

Maybe I am making us weird.

The Bushmans must be crazy – and I don’t mean the Bushmen in Africa.

Caterpillar Stew

200g dried mopane worms
1 onion, finely chopped
2 green bell peppers, sliced
6 tomatoes
1 TBSP curry powder
1 chili, deseeded and finely chopped
500ml water

Wash the worms and boil in lightly salted water for 30 minutes to re-constitute. Drain then add to the pan along with the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer and cook for about an hour. Serve with pap or samp and atchar.

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