I wrote an article for BBC World - a eulogy to insect-shaped insects. If that sounds like something you'd enjoy, please do take a look!
I wrote an article for BBC World - a eulogy to insect-shaped insects. If that sounds like something you'd enjoy, please do take a look!
Some well-cooked city caterpillars! These were from a similar recipe to the one described in this post, but the chef - working in a kitchen of a high end restaurant - left the caterpillars whole, as he prefers them that way. I think I prefer Catherine's recipe, which is why that's the one I've written about here...
Last month, I published a caterpillar recipe here.
For that recipe, my neighbour Argita and I cooked the caterpillars together , and I weighed and timed everything. I did the same with other women, and each recipe seemed to be a subtle variation on the same theme. Every dish was fairly similar, but I think I liked Argita’s the best.
(I’ve saved them all, in the vague hope that Felicity Cloake might one day wish to write her column on ‘how to cook the perfect caterpillars’)
City cuisine, though, is different.
When I spent some time in Ouagadougou, Catherine, the wife of one of my collaborators, showed me a new and different way of cooking dried caterpillars. Again, I weighed and timed everything.
This recipe uses more oil - which is probably one reason that I’ve not seen caterpillars cooked this way in the village, where oil is a luxury and used sparingly - but admittedly, it is delicious. So, for those of you lucky enough to have access to dried caterpillars and lots of oil, here’s recipe #2 for you:
*Cirina butyrospermi caterpillars - although the closely related Cirina forda caterpillar, or even the Gonimbrasia belina caterpillar known as the mopane worm, would probably also work well in this recipe.
**Any oil should work well, apparently - it’s a matter of preference. Catherine likes palm oil, as it’s locally available at an affordable price, and her family enjoys the taste. But European consumers might want to go for something more sustainable…
In Catherine’s house, we all sat around a communal plate of caterpillars, took chunks of bread, and heaped caterpillars onto our bread as we ate. We also just ate the caterpillars on their own occasionally, as you might help yourself to a few peanuts at a time. Her children were especially enthusiastic about the caterpillars, which are a rare treat.
Years ago, I was invited to participate in a panel at the 5th US-Japan Youth Forum in Tokyo. One of my fellow panellists was Kjerstin Erickson, who founded a successful non-profit organization, FORGE, at the age of 20. On stage, she was an amazing and inspiring speaker. But in person, too, she was an extremely honest, intelligent and thoughtful person to bounce ideas around with. She was also a lot of fun! We had a great time visiting one of my favourite things to see in Tokyo, the Elvises in Yoyogi Park...
Last year, Kjerstin posted something on Facebook about her new startup - Simbi, a website for people to trade skills and services, without any money changing hands. Members offer or requests services - anything from edits to illustrations to yoga lessons to babysitting to IT support to gardening to language lessons - and instead of paying in money, everything is paid for in a virual currency. This currency can then be exchanged for more services! The currency has no cash value, so all the effort you put in only goes towards helping other individuals. Also, everyone starts out equal, which is how the world ought to be.
It's a very simple idea, and pretty intuitive, too, so it's been really successful. Just a year after it was founded, Simbi is now a brilliant and thriving online community, populated by a huge number of people, all of whom share a common set of values. I really recommend it to everyone and anyone.
The point of this story is firstly to encourage you to join Simbi! But also to introduce my first fieldwork video :)
A few days ago, I sent a few of my unedited video clips - taken this year in Burkina Faso - to another Simbi member. In no time at all, he put a lovely short film together for me. It's only a minute and a half long, and it shows caterpillars in Burkina Faso being prepared by my Burkinabe neighbours, Argita and Momoni, and you can watch it here on YouTube. I hope you like it!
Here are a few screenshots from the film, and also one of the Simbi manifesto:
Here I offer you a recipe for cooking dried caterpillars, courtesy of my neighbour Argita.
Sure, the main ingredient may be unobtainable and obscure at present – but watch this space. After all, if inhabitants of Smethwick can enjoy their caterpillars, why cant the rest of the world?
Soumbala (Alternative – a splash of soy sauce, a teaspoon of miso paste, a tablespoon of natto) 30g
Stock cube ½ cube
The above measurements are rounded up or down from weights measured in the field. The result was delicious. Promise. I even have video to prove it. Here’s what you need to do:
Left: A Shea tree stripped bare by the caterpillars (the leaves visible in the tree are those of parasitic plants; all the Shea leaves are reduced to their pale yellow spines. It's a bit like when English trees shed their leaves, and in winter the mistletoe is visible as a result). Right: a 7-cm long caterpillar eating a shea leaf
I had been here a few weeks before the caterpillars came.
In those first few weeks people said they had seen the moths at night, and eventually I began to see little egg clusters nestled in the lower branches, or on the bark of the trunk, of the occasional shea tree. These didn't seem to be so very numerous to me, but my new friends disagreed. Everyone in the village anticipated a LOT of caterpillars.
A week or so after the eggs first appeared, they began to hatch. The newly emerged caterpillars were tiny – 2 or 3mm in length – and their transluscent green bodies would have been invisible against the green of the leaves were it not for (1) their black heads, (2) their obvious signature of a leaf stripped down to its structure, leaving only its ribs and backbone intact, and (3) the fact that they are gregarious, clustering in groups of over 100. Nevertheless, in the verdant shea trees towering above newly planted fields, each one crowned with dense foliage, these tiny caterpillars were not easy to spot. Not yet.
A few days later, they had grown in size. A week passed, and they were becoming easier to spot, in trees where they had defoliated entire branches. And after just a couple of weeks, the trees were transformed.
No longer was I working in idyllic landscapes scattered with fertile, flourishing trees. The crops continued to grow, but the trees – the trees were like ghosts. The majority of shea trees were now stripped bare by their tiny predators. The pale yellow spines of leaves were all that remained on the branches, and these shone in clouds around the crown of each tree. Meanwhile, the caterpillars had moved on to the next tree. Each day as I walked across fields, paths, even on roads, the caterpillars could be seen underfoot, steadily inching across the soil below with a clear purpose – to find more food.
Meanwhile, the villagers were happy – they had been right in their predictions, and their only expressed worry was that perhaps there were too many caterpillars and not enough trees, so that many would die before meeting maturity.
This is to set the scene for my next few posts (& I’ll add photos when I can!)
A is for Agroforestry – the landscape here is dominated by fields of crops scattered with trees, mostly shea (Vitellaria paradoxa) and African locust bean (Parkia biglobosa).
B is for Bigamy - most men in the villages, when they can afford to, take a second wife. Islamic tradition here permits up to four wives.
C is for Caterpillars - this is why I’m here! C is also for ‘Chitoumou’, the name used across Burkina for the edible caterpillar Cirinabutryospermi.
D is for Dolo - the millet beer brewed in large terracotta pots by several families in the village, each of whom serve it in their courtyard as soon as it is ready to drink, in large dried gourd-halves for 100F per litre. It is drunk by men, women and children alike.
E is for Elephants - Burkina has one of the largest remaining elephant populations. They don’t often come to this part of the country often, although I saw them here in April.
F is for Fieldwork - I’m spending my days collecting data, and this includes collecting, measuring and weighing caterpillars, collecting samples of other insects, measuring trees and the defoliation caused by the caterpillars, doing bird surveys in fields and forests, and also conducting interviews with men and women in the village.
G is for Garden - I have some land outside my house that I’m allowed to cultivate. Rain is scarce, insects are abundant, and it’s late in the season, but I’ve planted some okra and aubergine.
H is for Herding - when a person buys a cow, goat or sheep, s/he (probably he) can lease it to a person who is essentially a wandering shepherd (and of a distinct ethnicity). The shepherd is responsible for grazing and caring for the animals, and in return is entitled to one of every two newborn calves/lambs/kids. Most of the people shepherding the animals are young boys, in groups of two or three.
I is for Immigrants - there are many economic/climate immigrants living here, most of whom were born in the northern, dry, Sahelian regions of Burkina Faso and travelled here in the past few decades in search of fertile land. They speak a different language and are of a different ethnicity, but (partly also because of female exogamy - women often marry outside their village) many ethnicities live here, speaking many languages, and there is no animosity evident along ethnic lines.
J is for Jula - the main local language, although Moore and Dagara are also spoken commonly, and those who have been to school (most of the men, few of the women, especially older women) speak some French.
K is for Karite - the French name for shea, the tree that dominates the landscape and yields sweet fruits, which contain a seed that is roasted and cracked to reveal a nut, which is then process to make shea butter. Shea butter is used locally as a cooking oil and as an ointment, and is sold to an international market for use in both confectionary and cosmetics. It is a major export crop for Burkina.
L is for Liana - found in the small remaining patches of forest, with one very common species bearing a sweetly sour orange fruit. During my first two months here, I often came back after forest surveys with pockets filled with this fruit!
M is for Moto - in the quiet of my house, which is surrounded by trees, scrub and fields with my nearest neighbour over half a kilometreaway, the only sound other than birdsong and thunder is the occasional motorbike passing by.
P is for Palm - there are many palm trees in one of my field sites, and they are tapped to make palm wine.
Q is for Quarrel - I’ve not yet seen any real disputes, unless you count an argument between husband and wife one day when he accused her of not preparing any food for him that evening and she retorted by pointing out that he hadn’t brought any food home with him for her to prepare. It was 10pm and they were drinking locally-distilled cane spirit.
R is for Religion - The village is a mix of Muslims (slightly in the majority) and Christians (a significant minority). They mix socially, and again, I’ve not seen or heard any animosity along religious lines.
S is for Spirits - of the otherworldly kind. There are at least two people in the village who communicate with spirits from the forest, on behalf of others. I’ve only just encountered it and am not sure how common it is. But there is one elderly man here who is allegedly so renowned that people travel all the way from Ouagadougou (the capital city, which is 6-7 hours away by road) to see him.
T is for Tailor - for clothes, most people purchase lengths of cloth known as ‘fani’, which are typically colourful and patterned, in batik, print or tie-dye, and are also worn without adjustment as a wrap-around skirt - and pay one of the village tailors to make their trousers, skirts, dresses, shirts. This is a far cheaper option than the few second-hand clothes that are sold for high prices on market day.
U is for Umami - the savoury taste, which here is achieved using fermented locust beans known as ‘soumbala’. Coincidentally, the fermentation is similar to that of Japanese natto.
V is for Velo - the most common form of transport here is the bicycle, and I now have one of my own!
W is for Water, Well, Wheelbarrow - Like many households here, I walk to the nearest groundwater well to get my water. But unlike the women and children who balance their 20 or 30 litre jerrycans on their heads or cycle with them strapped precariously on their bikes, I use a wheelbarrow.
X is for XX - women (and girls) here collect the water, work in the fields (hoeing, planting, harvesting), gather wood for the fire, buy and sell the produce at the village market, prepare the food, make and sell the beer - and all this with their babies strapped to their backs.
Y is if for YX - men (and boys) here do some of the work in the fields - they plough using hired cattle, and those who can afford to spray their crops with agrochemicals. Some men own businesses - they are mechanics, fixing bikes and motorbikes, or they have small shops selling soap, sardines, tea, sugar, etc. There are exceptions to every rule and tasks are divided along lines of both wealth and gender - but for the most part, men seem to have control of most of the wealth while women seem to do most of the physical labour required by everyday life.
Z is for Zebra-donkey
Filled with nostalgia, I wrote about 'my first hornet hunt'...
"There! That tree, over there."
Miyake pointed to the foot of a low hill that rose above the paddy fields. When we reached the spot, there it was - a
giant hornet, crawling across the bark. I turned to Miyake in astonishment. How could he possibly have seen the insect
at such a distance?
The 65-year-old with impossibly sharp eyes smiled to himself, and he and Nakagaki began to prepare their chosen
‘bait’ – a piece of cloth, soaked in sugar water and attached to a long pole.
I later learned that what had, in fact, caught Miyake’s eye across the paddy field was the tree itself. It secretes a sweet
nectar, and giant hornets – which can only ingest liquids once they have reached adulthood – love to feed on it.
The hornet soon sensed the sugar water below. She flew down and began to drink. Nakagaki turned to me. "We do
nothing, for now. Let her get accustomed to it." Suddenly, she took off at speed.
"Good. Now more will come," Miyake stated with a smile, shielding his eyes from the bright autumn sun as he stared
...if you'd like to continue reading, the full story is on the BUGSfeed website - which also has a LOT of information about edible insects, and a pretty interesting documentary film trailer, too.
Today was a bit like a dream come true - here goes:
This is a photo of the morning light falling on the twin volcanoes Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl. Popocatepetl, on the left, is both active and 'male', while Ixtaccihuatl, his wife according to legend, is neither - if you look at the silhouette you can just about see the outline of a woman, laid down, hands folded across her chest.
Together they depict a sort of Mexican Romeo and Juliet, or many a modern marriage, perhaps. She lies sleeping (/dead), while he fumes.
Anyway! Back to today, which began both with the view shown above, and this too, below:
Fields in the early morning mist - it could be England, or anywhere - until you notice the spiky maguey cactuses, which mark the boundary lines, and it's definitely Mexico.
Today, we were visiting an NGO, Proyecto de Desarrollo Rural Integral, that works with farmers in a small municipality in the north of Tlaxcala state, to see if we might be able to work together to understand the social, economic and environmental implications of rejecting chemical pesticides and harvesting chapulines (grasshoppers) - just like everyone used to do before monoculture took over.
This is Panfilo Hernandez Ortiz, of Projecto de Desarrollo Rural Integral (the integrated rural development project), showing us a 'net'-ful of tiny chapulines that he has just swept through the edge of a polycultural maize-bean field in Vincente Guerrero.
Vincent Guerrero is a village of 573 inhabitants, named after a revolutionary general, where the morning serenity is broken by fireworks summoning people to church/work. A bit of a contrast from the jingles transmitted by loudspeaker in the Japanese countryside, but I was sold.
Speaking of Japan, check this out:
Sure, it may look like a badly-shot photo of a couple of Mexican farmers (and yes, it is) - but look closely! Anyone keen on cultigens (I'm sure I have a wide audience here. Well, I would if only the other 60% of the world had internet access) will see that maize is being intercropped with squash. This is a system that increases soil nitrogen and agricultural productivity, which first I learnt about here in Zimbabwe and South Africa. It's something that I tried to implement in Japan, with some (pretty minor) success.. But, of course, both crops originated here in Mexico.
Anyway, back to the grasshoppers. Here they are up close:
Still almost invisible, right?
The harvesting season in this region is Sept-Oct, depending on the weather, so they're not ready just yet.
For the time being, they'll be left to explore any food source they can find among the fields and their borders. Meanwhile, we'll try to figure out a way of addressing the research questions mentioned at the beginning of this post... and perhaps by the time autumn arrives, we'll have both a plentiful grasshopper harvest AND a strong protocol to celebrate!
(Actually, it was such a successful day that we began our celebrations early. Grasshoppers cannot be harvested in Vicente Guerrero yet, but Pulque - a milky, mucilaginous cactus beer that tastes about a hundred times better than this description - certainly can...)
According to written historical records, the Aztecs enjoyed a wide variety of edible insects, including honey ants, caterpillars and the eggs of aquatic beetles. These insects were considered the food of royalty, and many are still eaten as rare delicacies today, albeit mostly in rural areas. However, in the southern state of Oaxaca, one particular insect is found in abundance, and sold at affordable prices - Chapulines!
Chapulines is the plural of chapulin, which is the common Spanish term used for Sphenarium spp grasshoppers:
The photo above shows how chapulines are typically sold in the marketplace in Oaxaca city - in large quantities, in multiple flavours (typically garlic, chilli, and lemon) and in multiple sizes (small, medium and large are approximately 0.5cm, 1.5cm and 2.5cm in length). For 20MXN I was given a generous handful of medium-sized grasshoppers.
Domestic demand for chapulines is high, but since they are a common crop pest in the region, populations are currently limited due to pesticide use. Recent research suggests that limited use of agrochemicals, mimicking traditional pre-hispanic farming methods, could lead to a significant rise in the chapulines harvest.
Another insect that can be found at some market stalls is the guano, also known as the 'Agave worm'. It is a Coleoptera (beetle/weevil) larva, and it is found in the Agave cactus, a plant of great cultural importance in Oaxaca. Unlike the abundant chapulines, these insects are comparatively rare and prices are high - for 5MXN we were given just two worms!
The Agave cactus is important in Oaxaca because it is used to make Mezcal, a distilled spirit with a smoky flavour. There are 59 species of Agave cactus, meaning that there are many different types of mezcal available to try, and entire bars dedicated to mescal alone. (My favourite was a very smoky flavoured 'pechuga' mezcal, although a quick google search suggests that this is either flavoured with raw chicken or triple distilled - I think I'll choose to believe the latter, & not ask any further questions...)
Finally, one other insect is particularly important to Oaxaca, although not as food. Like the 'gusano' worm, it lives on a cactus:
These tiny little white sacs in the photo above each contain a cochineal beetle. Each beetle is just 3mm in length, but it is thanks to this beetle that Oaxaca was an incredibly rich city in colonial times. This is because Oaxaca was able to export large quantities of the beetle's product, cochineal dye, to fabric manufacturers across the world. Cochineal-based dye is still used in common food products today.
Here is what happens if you crush a cochineal beetle between your fingers:
I was in Mexico to visit Aspire FG, a Canadian-based social enterprise working to develop high density insect breeding facilities in the Oaxaca region and elsewhere. As with many edible insects, demand currently outstrips supply, and Aspire FG are hoping to develop ways to increase supply of chapulines and make them more accessible to those who could benefit from them most.
*This is not strictly true. I spent about 45 minutes wandering and taking many, many photos in awe of it all. Then I visited the area where the butterflies are bred, and saw their pupae, lime green or dark brown or even black but for so many, specked with gold. Why butterfly pupae resemble a precious metal raises a hundred questions, none of which I'll attempt to answer here.
This was my final month in Japan, still in love with it all (and hopefully not turning into Susan, not just yet), and I think (hope) I'll be back.
Last month, I visited a museum of insects in Itami City, southern-central Japan (not too far from Kyoto). Why? Partly because they had a special exhibition on world entomophagy, and partly because we were hosting visiting researchers from Zimbabwe whom we hoped to impress.
(There's something I want to mention about our Zimbabwean visitors: If they liked a meal, they literally sang, clapped and danced the praises of the host and/or food. I wish I had grown up in a place where this is a standard reaction to a satisfied stomach. What host/chef wouldn't be pleased with such a response? It's an instant recipe for friendship, worked every time here in Japan, and seemed to come so naturally.)
Anyway - the insect museum! It was fascinating, engrossing... until I entered the butterfly house. And that was something else. I felt like Lucy, having stumbled through the coats in the wardrobe and suddenly ended up treading on snow, but I was treading on solid ground and surrounded by all of the things - cascades of orchids over waterfalls through palm fronds under canary yellow bell flowers, carmine blooms, all of the colours and amongst this assault on the senses, the fluttering of wings - butterflies in their hundreds. So I took a few photos*, and here they are: