Worms, Creepy Crawlies, Eyes & Stones

You eat stones?” I ask Nomagugu Moyo, a Zimbabwean national who enjoys snacking on stones sold by informal vendors across South Africa for R1 per packet. “Yes, I eat stones. I have been eating them for years. Many do,” Moyo replies. And it’s not just stones, but also donkey meat, worms, bugs, chicken feet, and sheep’s heads that are considered delicacies on African ground.
I treasure the moments we all come together as a family to catch up, sing, and play with my two-year-old nephew. Plus, of course, there is my mom’s cooking. The delicious smells emanating from the pots always make me wonder what is simmering on the stove.
At our most recent gathering, when I finally had a moment alone, I went to peek in each one. The veggies were perfectly prepared. The gravy had a curry-spice-infused kick that made me instantly salivate. The pap was smooth and lump-free, just the way mom does it. And then, I opened the biggest pot, which I had intentionally left for last because I knew it had the meat.
“Runaways”: High-Five Protein
My previous pot-peeking exploits had led me to discover mom’s divine oxtail in the slow cooker or her timeless chutney-mayo chicken oven surprise. It would be an injustice not to mention my dad’s tasty braai or “secret-spiced” pan-fried chops, not to mention my sister’s feta meatballs that have only surfaced twice, in spite of popular demand.
I lifted the lid. And as though high-fiving me, I saw them. A pot full of **walkies** (chicken feet), with pointy chicken nails. “**Ngubani opheka amaotwana?**” I asked to enquire who cooked the **runaways** (another name for chicken feet). To which the unanimous, upbeat reply was “**phaka darli**” – meaning “dish up, dear”. While I am not a fan of this African delicacy, South Africans in every province – and Africans across the continent – enjoy it.
Give Us a Smile
But it’s not only African families who dine on seemingly strange delicacies. During an encounter with Gerhard Koekemoer, a private chef from Food Ink, he explained that cooking such treats is a drawcard for many local and international tourists, and offers a proudly African taste sensation.
“During my professional training as a chef, I was trained in game and tripe. When it comes to African delicacies, preparing a sheep’s head stands out for me. You’ve got to prepare this simple and easy. I also add my own personal twist to this sought-after dish,” says Koekemoer, who prepares nature-inspired dishes at a top-notch lodge near the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site.
When wining and dining in Mzansi, you might come across sheep’s head, otherwise known as a **smiley** (the sheep’s head looks like it is smiling) or “kop” (meaning “head” in Afrikaans). Many chefs cook it their own way, but invariably it comes complete with brain, teeth, eyeballs, tongue and all.
Oh, and here’s one more reason to smile. As an added perk, many African couples swear the soup made from the head of a sheep is an aphrodisiac for men that surpasses even Viagra. Don’t say you weren’t warned!
Horsing Around
Growing up, I assumed **ba ja pere** (horse/donkey eaters) was just a phrase referring to a specific cultural group of people. That was until I attended a celebration in the beautiful mountain kingdom of Lesotho, and was given the heads-up that donkey meat was on offer.
Tumie Sekoala, a well-travelled South African professional in the tourism industry, saw first-hand how her friend Shaidah Maposa indulged in donkey meat in Botswana. When I interviewed Maposa to find out more, she proudly sang its praises and explained that it was common in Botswana for people to eat donkey meat.
“Donkey meat is really, really delicious! It is particularly enjoyed as pounded meat that is cooked until the fine strips flake off the bones. The Batswana people from Botswana refer to this as **seswaa**, and our Batswana cousins from South Africa call it **chotlho**. It tastes just like regular meat. In fact, if no one tells you that it is meat from a donkey, chances are that you’d never be able to tell,” she says.
Creepy Crawlies
This year saw the opening of what is believed to be South Africa’s first all-insect restaurant. Gourmet Grubb, the company behind Cape Town’s trending bug ice cream, has expanded into a Cape Town-based pop-up bug restaurant, called The Insect Experience.
The meals were influenced by Gourmet Grubb chef Mario Barnard, who got the first-hand experience from a trip to Thailand. It was there that he was encouraged to dine on tarantulas and scorpions, among other unique edibles.
The restaurant offers new experiences for those looking to eat something different – think black-fly-larvae croquettes or mopane polenta. There is also something special for sweet-toothed patrons. You can’t go wrong with chocolate and ice cream – the twist is that they offer deep-fried dark chocolate black-fly-larvae ice cream.
The Early Bird Catches the Mopane Worm
One of my personal favourite African delicacies has to be mopane worms, fondly known as **masonja**. To try these for yourself, head over to Limpopo in the blistering hot summer months. Our family vacation to Mopani Rest Camp in Kruger National Park confirmed why it bears that name. There were mopane trees everywhere! This leads to an infestation of mopane worms in the trees, on the ground, and even in the swimming pool.
While we did not eat the worms found at the reserve, locals who live outside the reserve sold bucketloads of dried mopane worms from roadside stalls. The worms are best served with pap. I have also joined in with locals who snack on dried worms, just as you would with biltong. Once you get over the thorny, black, yellowy and red exterior of the dried worms, you can enjoy the worm’s rich protein, including its crispy black head.
Hairy Eating
Often described by kids as “hairy meat”, tripe is one of those meats you get at traditional weddings and celebrations. Tripe refers to the edible stomach lining of various farm animals such as cattle and sheep. It is also one of those tricky dishes to cook because if executed incorrectly, a thick layer of fat can form over the final product.
“When it comes to cooking tripe, the plainer the better. Boil it until it is soft and then add Aromat [seasoning], salt and pepper. Avoid the temptation of getting carried away with spices and sauces, as that can detract from its hearty deliciousness. I think people must definitely give tripe and other specialties a try,” says Sarah Buthelezi, a multiskilled entrepreneur who also excels in catering and baking.
What’s clear is that unusual African delicacies are not just a thing for traditional African villages. They have been modernised to find a place in contemporary settings and are great drawcards for the industry. From village cooks to private chefs and high-end offerings, African food continues to thrive.
<<Pull Quote>> Gourmet Grubb, the company behind Cape Town’s trending bug ice cream, has expanded into a Cape Town-based pop-up bug restaurant, called The Insect Experience.