Mashonzha also called Mopane Worms, Mopani Worms, Masonja or Amasonja are a delicacy throughout Southern Africa in countries like South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. The Mopane worm named after the host tree Colophospermum mopane, is actually the green and blue spiky caterpillar of the nocturnal Emperor Moth.
Harvesting of mashonzha lasts for about 3 weeks (the exact date dependant on rainfall). In southern Africa there is usually 1 main harvest per year but with good rains a small second harvest can occur in April or May.
Harvesting, mostly by women and children, is done by shaking the mopane trees or by cutting infested branches. Usually, only those caterpillars on the lower branches of the tree are gathered, as it is believed that worms at the top of the tree are not yet ripe for consumption. This practice also ensures that the trees are not damaged and are fit to host next year’s caterpillars.
Sadly, the mashonzha crop has been threatened in recent years by outsiders eager to capitalise on the caterpillar’s popularity. Restrictions have been introduced to ensure that mashonzha does not become extinct through over harvesting and damage to its habitat.
After harvesting, the crop of caterpillars are disemboweled and dried or boiled in salt water, then preserved in ashes or dried in the sun. Mashonzha has a long shelf life, up to a year.
Traditionally, mashonzha has been harvested for own use by rural households and occasionally providing income for rural families across the region. There are suggestions that it has made quite a significant contribution to rural diets and most researchers agree that mashonzha contribute to the incomes of the rural poor.
Containing 60% protein and significant amounts of phosphorus, iron and calcium, it is unrivalled as an easily obtainable source of free food and an essential source of protein. For hundreds of years, rural communities in Africa have relied on mashonzha and other grubs as an essential source of protein. There is a long history of collecting edible caterpillars for food, to sell or to exchange with their neighbours for other necessities.
The worms are fast becoming popular with tourists as an “ethnic” snack. The innards of the worms are usually squeezed out, they are then boiled and sun dried or covered in ash and then rehydrated when needed.
Category: South African Cuisine
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