This no doubt varies a great deal by region and by species, but for the women I’ve spoken to here:
1. Wash them. Caterpillars (they’ve been traversing sandy soils, after all) should be washed thoroughly - at least three times with fresh water, and any leaf debris etc picked out by hand.
2. Kill them. Dissolve potassium in water and add this to a thick-bottomed metal cooking-pot. (Optional: Add salt to the water at this stage. Doing this will improve the flavour, and will also help to preserve the caterpillars) Add the caterpillars (the volume of caterpillars can be about 4 or 5 times the volume of water). Heat over a steady fire for 4-6 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the water boils up and over the top of the caterpillars and all are very definitely no longer alive.
3. Drain them, reserving the black liquid for the next batch, if you like.
4. Now comes a choice: Sell them, dry them, or eat them?
a. Sell them: Great. They are ready to be sold. Put them in a bucket and wander to the nearest thoroughfare – e.g. any dirt track that goes between the villages. Present them to a woman who will inevitably be sitting by the side of the path with sacks of caterpillars and a large tin known as a ‘boite’. She’ll fill it to the brim, and then pack more on top until it is overflowing. Then she’ll tip it into her sack, and add a handful just for good measure. This is ‘one boite’, and you’ll be charged per boite.
b. Dry them: Lay them on sackcloth in direct sunlight for 2-3 days.
c. Eat them: The most common method here, when cooking with fresh caterpillars, is to fry them. Add some oil to a pan and heat. Wash the caterpillars and – here people have differing preferences. Some break them in half, some remove the heads, some cook them whole – add them to the pan. Chop onion, tomatoes, chilli pepper, as you like, and add these to the pan, stirring well to ensure everything is cooked thoroughly. The mixture will be ready to eat after 10-12 minutes. Some people claim the caterpillars are best enjoyed in a sandwich, others ate them with rice or maizemeal, and others prefer them unaccompanied.
So these are the methods by which people reap their harvest of caterpillars. And what are the benefits?
When selling them fresh to a woman on the road (and these women will usually have traveled from the nearest large town), you can expect to receive between 350-700 francs per boite. This is the price range I’ve recorded at my study sites this year. The variation is due partly to the huge fluctuations in availability during the short season, and also to the variation among my study sites in their distance from the nearest car-accessible road.
When selling dried caterpillars, I’m told you can receive between 1000-2000 francs per boite. However, the caterpillars shrink when dried, so three boites of fresh caterpillars become one boite of dried caterpillars. Therefore, it’s not necessarily financially astute to dry them – unless you live far from the nearest road and would rather make a single trip and sell all of your caterpillars in one go, rather than day by day.
As for the benefits of eating caterpillars, watch this space! But I definitely agree with the enthusiasm of everyone I’ve spoken with here – nearly all of whom claim to eat caterpillars at every opportunity during the season, and as a result they get to ‘eat meat every day’ – that they definitely make a tasty and filling meal.