Mopane worms taste just like… potato chips

mopane worm

Cruncy, salty mopane worms are a favorite snack in Zimbabwe and other parts of southern Africa.  The “worm” is actually a caterpillar of Gonimbrasia belina, commonly known as the Emperor moth.  It is called a mopane (or mopani) worm from its diet — the leaves of the mopane tree.

Ounce for ounce, mopane worms contain three times as much protein as beef.  They have a whopping 31 mg of iron per 100 grams of dry weight, and are a good source of potassium, sodium, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, zinc, manganese, copper and B vitamins.

To harvest mopane worms, mature caterpillars are plucked by hand (or shaken from higher branches) and placed into buckets. Stubborn worms are pried loose with a stick. As they are handled, the worms excrete a brown liquid, which leaves the pickers’ hands slippery and wet. Continue reading

Ergot poisoning: the original Purple Haze

Detail of The Temptations of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald, c. 1512-15

Detail from The Temptations of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald, c. 1512-15

“[A] Great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot, so that their limbs were loosened and fell off before death.”  From the Annales Xantenses (857 AD).

 

It has been blamed for the Salem witch trials and the “Great Fear” of 1789,  which contributed to the French Revolution.  Its reemergence in the 20th century led to a treatment for migraine headaches and to the invention of LSD.

But in the Middle Ages, what we now call ergot poisoning, or ergotism, was a terrifying mystery known as “Holy Fire” (ignis sacer) because of the terrible burning pain it caused. Ergot — the common name for Claviceps purpurea – is a fungus that affects rye and other grains.  It contains ergotamine which, in moderate doses, causes the contraction of smooth muscle fibers, such as those in the small arteries.

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The delicious, nutritious dandelion is anything but a common weed

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Many people think of the dandelion as little more than an alternative to a daisy for playing “he loves me, he loves me not.”  Indeed, it’s said that if you can blow all of a dandelion’s seeds off with one try, then you are passionately loved. If some seeds remain, your lover has reservations about your relationship.  And if a lot of seeds stay stuck to the globe, you are supposedly loved very little or not at all.

But taraxacum officinale, as dandelion is botanically known, is good for much more than mere child’s play.  Full of Vitamins A, B, C, D and K, as well as iron, potassium and zinc, young dandelion greens make a tasty and nutritious addition to any meal.  In many parts of the world, dandelion is also consumed as a medicine, though claims about it have not been clinically tested in humans.  It has been used for centuries, however, to treat dyspepsia (indigestion/upset stomach), dropsy and liver disorders, and as a mild laxative for chronic constipation.  It is also said to improve the appetite and promote digestion.

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Durian – the world’s smelliest fruit

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“When the durians fall down, the sarongs go up.” – Malay saying

Durian’s smell has been likened to “road kill wrapped in sweaty socks.”  It’s so pungent that it’s been banned in most Asian airlines and hotels.  And with a taste that has been described as “cheese, decayed onion and turpentine,” durian sounds like something you wouldn’t want in your garbage, let alone your mouth.  So why are people willing to pay as much as $25-50 for this “king of fruits”?

The green, melon-sized durian grows on trees throughout Southeast Asia. The outside is covered with spiky thorns that can pierce even calloused hands.  On the inside it has five oval compartments, each filled with pale, edible pulp and one to five large seeds. Since a durian can weigh as much as 18 pounds, farmers have been known to wear helmets to protect their heads when they harvest the fruit.

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