To Chew or Not to Chew? That is the question

Travelling to other parts of the world often means being introduced to new food types and it is not uncommon when touring in Africa to have a choice of exotic game meat – from impala to kudu and even crocodile. And then, something really different for the majority of people would be to be faced with a MOPANE WORM as a protein choice.

So is this, like on some reality tv programme, eaten live, fat and wriggling? Rest assured, the worms (which are not worms at all, but hairy caterpillars, the larva of the Emperor Moth) are harvested and dried first. And then eaten like that as a snack, or re-hydrated and fried to crispy, or cooked in a tomato and onion gravy to make a stew.


Mopane worms are hand-picked in the wild, often by women and children. When the caterpillar has been picked, it is pinched at the tail end to rupture the innards. The picker then squeezes it like a tube of toothpaste or lengthwise like a concertina, and whips it to expel the slimy, green contents of the gut. Sound appetising yet?

Mopani worm

Nutritionally they pack a punch consisting of 60% protein along with good amounts of iron and calcium. Mopane worms are considered to be a profitable harvest, as a mere three kilograms of feed (mopane leaves) will generally yield one kilogram of mopane worms: in contrast, cattle farming requires ten kilograms of feed to generate one kilogram of beef; thus the worms are a low-cost, low-maintenance, high-protein food source.

Like most caterpillars, the mopane worm’s life cycle starts when it hatches in the summer, after which it proceeds to eat the foliage in its immediate vicinity. As the larva grows, it moults 4 times in its 5 larval stages, after which the mopane worm is considered most desirable for harvesting. Provided that the larva has not been harvested after its fourth moult, it burrows underground to pupate, the stage at which it undergoes complete transformation to become the adult moth. This stage happens over winter, for a duration of 6 to 7 months, whereafter it emerges at the beginning of summer (November or December). The adult moths live only for three to four days, during which time they seek to mate and lay their eggs.

People reporting on the taste and texture of the mopane worms all agree that you have to chew and chew and chew – and they taste a bit like a mixture of a blend of earth, salt and dry-walling – and if some leaves are left in the stomach of the caterpillar, they just add a slight “tea” flavour. I suspect the key to added flavour would be the sauce they are cooked in!

Do the Swazi people eat Mopane Worms? Although the caterpillars eat mango tree leaves as well as mopane leaves, these are not prevalent in Swaziland, being a bit too far south for large mopane stands (they are found mostly in Botswana, Limpopo province and the more northerly parts of Mpumalanga). So on a visit to Swaziland, this will not be a choice you will have to make!

Swazi people have maize as their staple diet, and love beef, chicken, goat, pork and fresh water fish. Dinner will usually consist of mealie meal cooked to a stiff paste, with a vegetable and meat stew.   I have read that Swazi people love the fruit of the Baobab tree. But this is not true – there are no Baobabs in Swaziland!

So I don’t have a recipe to make Mopane Worms delicious for when you visit Swaziland, but if you are staying at a self catering lodge home, this is a mealie bread that I pop into the oven, which is quick and easy to make and fabulous sliced and oozing with butter (serve it warm). Have it with your braai instead of bread rolls.

Sweet Mealie Bread
Warm oven to 200°

500gm pack of self raising flour
1 tin condensed milk
1 tin creamed mealies
Pinch salt

Mix all ingredients together, pop into a greased loaf tin and bake for about 45 minutes at 200°. Test with knife – if it comes out clean, the loaf is done.

And if you would like me to find you a great self catering lodge at Royal Jozini Big 6, where you can cook the bread, just drop me an email with your preferred dates and I will send you the choices available and the rates.