Growing up, my favorite time of the year was December. And before you start thinking, “This is another Christmas story,” well, it’s not. This was the one month of the year I could spend with my grandmother cooking something that was available only around that time. It was so fun preparing this particular meal because first we had to look for and capture it.
The special treat? Flying termites, or ishwa (flying alates), are Zimbabwe’s second most popular insect cuisine after the mopane worm. But the tasty and juicy ishwa are actually a healthier option, packing an extra protein punch. Found in the provinces of Mashonaland East and Central, Masvingo and Harare, the meaty little delicacies have been consumed by many tribes and cultures across the country dating back centuries, according to the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe. Fresh ones are available only during the insect’s annual mating flight, which occurs in the second month of the rainy season.
The dish is often served with the country’s traditional staple food sadza (cooked maize meal), with vegetables and gravy on the side.
What makes the termites so tasty is the mixture of protein and fats, says chef Honest Danda, who has cooked termites throughout his 10-year career (including at one of Zimbabwe’s top hotels, Rainbow Towers). This is why ishwa are never cooked with oil. “Growing up in a rural area, we used to harvest ishwa from a termite mound. My mother taught me how to cook them,” Danda says. And that’s how he started preparing them: in an open frying pan over a fire.
The trick in frying ishwa, Danda explains, is stirring continuously as soon as they’re in the pan. This helps get the wings off the insects faster — and keeps them from flying away. While there is nothing wrong in eating the wings, the dish is usually served without them. Once most of the wings are off, the ishwa are removed from the pan to dry. Then they’re returned to the pan, this time with a bit of salt and water, depending on the quantity, and turned in the salty water until it evaporates. Then the termites are dried again prior to serving.
Although traditionally a rural favorite, ishwa are so popular now that a number of shops in the suburbs of Harare such as Belvedere, Avondale, Westgate and even the central business district are beginning to sell them precooked. The growing demand is in response to termites being marketed as a healthy choice. Some resorts, traditional restaurants and food outlets are adding flying termites to the menu. On occasion, even posh hotels such as Rainbow Towers offer the dish around December. The dish is often served with the country’s traditional staple food sadza (cooked maize meal), with vegetables and gravy on the side ($1–$2).
Initially, you may try ishwa out of curiosity, but the taste might just get you hooked. The first bite explodes with a rich, oily and nutty flavor. As you begin to chew, the greasy goodness from the body releases, giving it a stir-fried kind of taste. That delicious taste, that’s why I eat them.
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