When I first tasted caterpillars in DRC, I thought they were delicious, but I was also pretty sure that they didn't have much potential as an ingredient that could be enjoyed anywhere but the middle of a tropical rainforest for a very short period of time. Caterpillars are seasonally abundant, and everyone was adamant that they had to be enjoyed fresh. You could dry them, but...it just wasn't the same.
However, it turns out this really isn't the case with the dried caterpillars I brought back with me from Zimbabwe. Gonimbrasia belina and Gynanisa maia, popularly known as Mopane Worms (but with a whole host of other local names differing according to place and species - madora, macimbi, gandari, pipi, etc), rehydrate very nicely. I think I am beginning to understand why several tonnes of them are imported to France and Belgium every year.
But what I dont understand is why, for the UK consumer, your only option is to buy 'salted-and-ready-to-eat' mopane worms in a can from Selfridges, at the insane price of £14.99 for 40g.
Go to a market in Zimbabwe with a $1 note and your average mopane worm seller will pour 150-200g of dried worms into a bag for you. To rehydrate them, you just soak them in hot water for a few hours, and they are ready to be cooked. And the cooking process is brilliant: Add any or all of your favourite flavourings and vegetables. Simmer, slowly. The caterpillars add a savoury, smokey, rich taste to the stew, and their texture is so unique that it gives an interesting contrast to whatever vegetables you have decided to use. The women in the Zimbabwean markets who explained this to me recommended tomatoes, onions, garlic, greens, chillis, and salt as their go-to ingredients.
Since being back in Japan I've tried a few experiments, and from my mistakes I've learnt two things so far:
1) Frying is just not worth it. They lose their flavour and texture.
2) Flavour-wise, they do go well with Japanese condiments (soy sauce, ginger, mirin), but you have to be careful about the process. I added mirin at the very beginning of the cooking process and I've been taught since that this is a mistake. The sugar content in the mirin will cause the skin of the caterpillar to harden. Mirin and/or sugar should only be added at the very end, to taste.
The dish above was an experiment - I cooked the caterpillars with garlic, chilli and bay leaves to soften them and add flavour. Then my friend sauteed them with vegetables, and topped this with salad. This also worked really nicely and yes, the whole dish was eaten in one lunchtime!
The dish below was another experiment, this time inspired by a ridiculous amount of freshly brewed sake. I simmered the caterpillars with onion, tomato, garlic, paprika, bay leaves and smoked tofu. Just before serving, in order to preserve the taste of the stock that is created by simmering the caterpillars, I mixed in a couple of eggs.