Edible Insects—A Meal We Will Not Forget

SEVERAL friends have invited my wife and me to share a meal in a quiet neighborhood in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic.

“Come in! I hope you’re hungry!” they say to us as we arrive. Even before we enter, we smell enticing aromas of onions, garlic, and spices and hear the noisy chatter of our friends. Our host, Ella, entertains us with talk of the meal to come.

“Insects are an important source of protein for many in Central Africa,” Ella says. “But we don’t eat them because we have to; we eat them because they taste so good.” She adds, “Today we will be eating makongo—caterpillars.”

We should not have been surprised. Though insects on the dinner plate may not appeal to all tastes, in well over a hundred countries, some insects are considered a delicacy.

A Feast in the Forest

A variety of insects are eaten in the Central African Republic. During the rainy season, termites called bobo swarm around termite mounds or, in urban areas, around electric lights. After an evening storm, children run to collect them by the basketful—often, tossing them in their mouth with shrieks of delight. Termites are eaten sun dried, roasted with salt, and spiced with hot pepper, or they may be boiled in stews or dumplings.

Kindagozo refers to green grasshoppers that arrive in the area in the dry season. Central Africans roast grasshoppers or simmer them in water after the insects’ legs and wings have been removed.

Several species of caterpillar are also eaten throughout the country. We were invited to enjoy the larvae of the Imbrasia. A large brown moth lays its eggs in sapelli trees. After the caterpillars are hatched, villagers collect and wash them. The caterpillars are then simmered with tomatoes, onions, and other ingredients according to a family’s recipe. Some may be dried or smoked for preservation. They can also be kept for up to three months for later use.

Safe and Good for People

Although not all insects are edible, many are safe when harvested from areas free of pesticides and fertilizers and prepared properly. Of course, as a precaution, they should be avoided by those allergic to the insects’ marine counterparts, crustaceans, which are also arthropods. In contrast to most shellfish, which scavenge for decaying matter, most edible insects eat only clean leaves and consume plants that humans might otherwise be unable to digest.

Caterpillars have an amazing amount of nutrition concentrated in a deceptively small package. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, dried caterpillars contain more than double the protein of beef. Food experts are rediscovering insects as a source of nourishment in developing lands.

Depending on the species of caterpillar eaten, just 3.5 ounces (100 g) can provide a large part of the daily requirements of such important minerals as calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc, as well as many vitamins. Additionally, flour made from ground caterpillars can be mixed into a pulp to supplement the diet of undernourished children.

Besides their nutritional value, there are other benefits to entomophagy—the practice of eating insects. Using insects for food is environmentally friendly. Doing so requires little water and produces few greenhouse gas emissions. Added to that, collecting insects for food is a natural means of pest control.

The Main Course

As we anticipated this special meal, we remembered that the Law covenant given to the ancient nation of Israel declared locusts to be clean. Servants of the true God, such as John the Baptist, ate them. (Leviticus 11:22; Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6) Still, we may initially hesitate to eat something that we are not accustomed to eating.

Ella returned from the kitchen with a steaming entrée that grabbed everyone’s attention. With us were eight Central Africans with beaming smiles, and before us were two large bowls of caterpillars. As visitors, we received the honor of being served first, and generously so.

We can say: “If you are privileged to enjoy such an inexpensive, delicious, and nutritious meal, do not hesitate! It is a meal you will never forget.”

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Uncooked makongo—caterpillars

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Prepared kindagozo—grasshoppers