3 October 2015 – Lucky Peach
The Nagas—a collective name for the subtribes found in the rugged, jungle-covered hills straddling India and Burma—are known, where they’re known at all, for eating anything that moves. Staples of the Naga diet include pork fat and smoked beef and entrails cooked in pungent curries of fermented soy and smoked yam leaves. Visit markets in the major towns of the Indian state of Nagaland, home to sixteen major tribes, and you’ll see bundles of wild greens plucked from the jungle; frogs and eels and river fish, both smoked and alive; white rats (good for asthma) and rabbits in woven bamboo cages; and a shocking variety of bugs.
Though this Naga predilection for things like dog meat and insects is both exaggerated and, for many Nagas, an irritating generalization, it’s also true that these ingredients are more common here than anyplace I’ve ever visited. Over the course of three weeks traveling around the state, I insisted that my hosts help me prepare as many of the current crop of seasonal bugs as possible. As I ate my way through Nagaland’s rich insect life, I learned of a whole host of other bugs not currently in season: red ant eggs; giant flying termites; and a special variety of stink bug, collected from rocks by the sides of rivers in the Ao districts of northwest Nagaland, which are crushed into a sour—and apparently quite polarizing—chutney. Even now, during what I’m told is an unfortunate shoulder season for indulging in insectile delicacies, I had the opportunity to learn a smattering of recipes. Below, some tips, straight from the source, on how to whip up a buggy feast.
Families in the villages around Nagaland raise silkworms by the hundreds—not to harvest the precious thread from which they build their cocoons, but rather to eat the plump yellow and greens worms cut out of those cocoons, usually about ten days into their transformation into butterflies. At most markets, you’ll find the worms already removed from their cocoons and set out squirming on patches of newspaper. At others, you can buy them in their silk, use small scissors to cut them out (careful not to lacerate the worms; the yellow liquid inside turns black on contact with air and stains something awful). You can then sell the remaining silk casements back to the state Sericulture Department for rs.150/kg, a practice that began twenty years ago. In Nagaland, the worms are not an incidental boon of producing yarn—it’s the other way around.
Like most bugs I ate in Nagaland, silk worms are typically boiled for about an hour with crushed chilies and salt in a mixture of water and the fermented juice of bamboo shoots, which is sour, lightly acidic, and varies in strength depending on how long it’s been fermenting (some households will keep bottles of this stuff on the shelf for years at a time). In the village of Mongsenyimti, I spent the better part of an afternoon cutting worms from their chrysalises so they could be mixed with a paste of chilies, salt, and fermented bamboo (this time the solid pulp rather than the semi-opaque juice), and stuffed into a hollow tube of bamboo, which we then sealed with banana leaf and cooked over an open fire for an hour. When cooked, the outer skin becomes firm and gives way, with a crunch, to a soft, smooth interior that tastes, like many bugs, vaguely of shrimp. Perfectly bite-sized, silk worms also make an excellent accompaniment to beer, which is drunk in Nagaland (technically a prohibition state, but ha) in bladder-bursting quantities.
The best hornet larvae don’t turn up until November, I’m told, but even in early September, when the larvae are smaller, they’re a delicacy. In the market, they’re sold not by weight but by the stack: big rounds of cardboard-like hive, half the cells squirming with plump, cream-colored pupae, the rest covered over with a fine white sheath that, peeled back, reveals larvae in different stages of gestation. The whole thing has a sort of creepy science-fiction vibe—it looks like a hornet factory, which is just what it is—especially when you remove the white, papery layer to find near-adults clambering out of their cells and attempting to stretch their immature wings. Though I was assured that even these wouldn’t be big enough yet to sting, the whole endeavor felt much like a high-stakes, edible game of whack-a-mole.
Once removed from the hive, the larvae are best cooked in much the same way as the silk worms: boiled with fermented bamboo juice (about a third of a cup should do it) and water (enough to cover), salt, and a couple of burnt chilies. They have distinct flavors at different stages of gestation: pupae are both the color and texture of an egg custard, and are mildly sweet. The half-formed hornets, still creamy white like the ghosts of bees yet to come, absorb the flavor of the bamboo most fully. The nearly adult black ones give a crunchy umami burst when you bite–my favorites among all the bugs I tasted.
On my last night in the village of New Ripyhim in western Nagaland, I went out into the jungle with a man named Rakomo—who, I was told, is the village’s ace grasshopper hunter. An hour or so before sundown, which comes around 5:30 in Nagaland even in the summer [1. A quirk of India’s single preposterous timezone—GMT +4:30—which covers the nation’s whole 1600-mile breadth], Rakomo went out with a hoe to clear small patches in the underbrush. As bait, he left piles of pounded rice husk in the middle of his mini clearings. We returned about two hours later with a flashlight, a bamboo basket, and a giant fan-shaped swatter, which Rakomo jokingly referred to as his “cricket bat.” When we caught big, black grasshoppers in the beam of the flashlight, Rakomo would bring down the bat with a loud woosh, thwack! and toss the little critters—some dead, others merely stunned—into the narrow-mouthed basket. We got probably three-dozen in about thirty minutes, an impressive pull.
Back in the village, we dumped the grasshoppers in hot water to clean/drown them, then dry-roasted them on a flat piece of tin over an open flame. When they became crisp and fragrant, we removed their legs, antennae, and innards before boiling them with the usual combination of salt, chili, and fermented bamboo shoot juice. Crunchier than hornets or silk worms, they also had a more pronounced shrimp flavor.
Never in my life have I heard louder cicadas than I heard around Nagaland. Which is to say, I experienced a rush of vengeful elation one evening in Changki village when I turned up at a friend’s family’s home to find that his uncle had just collected a jar full of green cicadas, and was happy to gift them to me for an evening snack.
We treated the inch-and-a-half-long bugs similarly to the grasshoppers—drown them, remove inedible appendages (i.e., wings and legs), tear off the heads, and pull out the guts—but then dry-roasted them with salt rather than boiling them, so they turned golden brown. Fatty, crispy, salty—they might as well have been a bowl of nuts, and I ate them with the same gusto that most people usually reserve for a bag of Lays.
Keru are red caterpillars found under tree bark that only come out for a short time after the rains—so naturally, they cost a small fortune. They also stink to high heaven: think of that strange musty smell you get when you crush a millipede. The one time I tasted these, I had them deep-fried in mustard oil, which rendered them pleasantly crunchy and light—almost like shoestring potatoes—but essentially flavorless. I’m told this isn’t traditional (Naga cooking uses virtually no oil), and that the best way is to boil them with a small amount of bamboo to absorb the smell. I’m unlikely, however, to be testing them out again anytime soon—$20 is a lot to spend for a handful of stinky caterpillars.
Gray and huge with long, shimmering shells that look like they’ve been recently shellacked, water roaches crossed my path only once, at Dimapur’s weekly Wednesday market (called the Super Market, facetiously or not I couldn’t quite tell). Despite my firm belief that squeamishness is silly and that astounding new flavors can come from just about anywhere, I couldn’t quite work up the courage to buy the things as they attempted, in vain, to scramble up the sides of the blue plastic pail in which they were being sold. Everyone, as it turns out, has a limit.