Many years before I knew that chitin was indigestible by the human stomach, I had a gastronomic connection to the insect gourmet diet. There are seasonal insects that are a delicacy among Malawians of all ages. Take for instance, ngumbi (flying ants) during the main rains of November and December. These airborne bundles of joy can be taken raw – to the brave hearts, or roasted, or better still, boiled, then sun-dried, then roasted with a pinch of salt. I’m not sure of what nutritional value is left at the end of it, but the taste is awesome. Taken with nsima, a native thick maize paste which is the mainstay of the staple diet in the country, ngumbi is in a class of its own. However, because the skin contains chitin some stomachs don’t handle the meal very well. But that does not diminish the wonderful sensations your taste buds will put up together with the olfactory organ.
As a boy growing up in Blantyre, the commerce centre for Malawi, any interaction with nature was seized without hesitation. Flying ants are attracted to light, so the adventure started by catching them in the evening under the street lights. The Lisimbas, our next door neighbours had a personal anthill within their compound. As such the street light next to their house had the most concentration of these ants. Each night, during the season, there would be a cacophony of voices from boys, girls and dogs each trying to outwit the other in catching them.
To reduce the possibility of cars running over me, my mum decided that I should be catching ngumbi at home. So we started using the security light on our veranda to attract the flying pizza toppings! (Yes, you can do just that.) And to increase the chances for an easy catch, we’d pour water on the floor guaranteeing a trapped landing once they let their bellies down. This was easy and somewhat lessened the fun of chasing them around, or waving them down with a shirt while being topless (for the boys only).
With time, the techniques of catching them evolved. Instead of waiting for them to come out, we could catch them right at the anthill. Unfortunately, the solder termites gave us value for each catch. They were big headed with menacing mandibles. And they were able to deliver a painful pinch. Even the smaller termites had a pinch too. None of us escaped their watch.
To circumvent the problem, the older boys started mining the anthill, creating a slanted runway and fixing a pail or a basin at the bottom of it. Then covering the trap with grass. This would create darkness and coax the flying ants to start coming out right in the afternoon. The innovation worked for most of my friends. Somehow, I couldn’t get to doing it right and at most only managed to catch a handful.
Flying insects were not the only ones keeping us busy. We also had mafulufute. I don’t know what the English name is, but these insects came in two colours, two shapes and two sizes. One was black, big and more rotund. The other was orangish red, small and crunchy. When we were young, the black ones were the clear favourites. I’m more inclined towards the smaller ones these days.
Their anthills did not have termites. Instead they had tiny ants that were very itchy. Once in a while we could chance them coming out of an anthill, and that would ensure a bigger catch. Otherwise, chasing them while airborne was not a small matter. You had to be agile, quick to spot aerial movement, and even quicker to react. Mafulufute provided the best sport when chasing them compared to the rest of the insects.
And then there was grasshoppers. Occasionally, we could find locust. This one had to be hunted with a specially designed bow and arrows. The arrow was made from a corncob. Six or seven pieces of wire with the same length would then be arranged around the cob, and then a longer wire would be placed through the centre. This became a flying trap, much like a mouse trap. Again, to catch a hopper took incredible skill, and for the majority of the smaller boys, the whole hunting experience was about recounting near misses. It was more about how close one got to nailing a hopper down than it was about the actual catch.
Among the grasshoppers, my personal favorite in as far a catching them for a meal was concerned was the type we call abwannoni. They are often green, slender and easier to catch. They are attracted to light and get busy at night. They are usually a menace to rice paddies but in cities, they are a delicacy. These are the ones I enjoyed catching, and munching too. In fact, of all my childhood insects diets these are the remaining ones on my list. I still eat ngumbi, but it’s not as nearly tasty as abwannoni.
These days some nutritionists are promoting the consumption of insect protein to help communities that are vulnerable to effects of climate change, and are susceptible to low harvest yields. It would seem food science is finally catching up to what we already knew as boys and girls, and exploited over 30 years ago!