After covering the foods Kenyans eat on an everyday basis in my previous post, I'd like to move on to the more, ahem, eccentric foods (and things) I saw East Africans eating.
I can't for the life of me remember the KiLuhya word for "small fish," but it is exactly what it sounds like: fish that are, well, small (they may be the same as anchovies? Not sure). Harvested by luring them into nets with a light mimicking the moon, the fish are then laid out in the sun to dry for several days. They're a big favorite with East Africans, so the small fish trade is a highly lucrative one. Try as they might, however, the women in the village were never able to convince me to buy any from them. My transactions generally went something like this: "Six tomatoes and three onions, please." "Ok, and these ones? The small fish? They are nice!" If I had been in a situation where I was offered small fish in someone's home, I would have given them a try, but I wasn't about to cook them for myself. I love fish as much as the next person--although I try not to eat very much due to severe overfishing of our oceans--but swallowing dried fish scales and eyeballs is just not my jam. I guess people in the States eat anchovies...this, however, is one crowd you can forever count me out of.
Okay, termite consumption is a topic that really, really excites me. I've tried extensively to find quality literature to link to online, but as this exercise failed miserably, I'll paraphrase the great Bill McKibben in his fantastic book The End of Nature:
First of all, there are a lot of termites on this planet. A lot. It is estimated that for every human on Earth, there are over 1,000 pounds of termites (roughly the weight of a cow). That means that for every pound of you, there are ten pounds of termites under the ground. This is both good and bad news. It is bad news because termites, like cows, are a huge emitter of the greenhouse gas methane. Estimates put the termite contribution of methane to the atmosphere at up to 1.5 million tonnes per year. Every time we clear-cut a forest this number grows as termite mounds spring up by the thousands to consume the leftover decaying wood--thus we enter into a nasty cycle where we lower the planet's ability to sequester greenhouse gases while simultaneously providing the ideal conditions for increasing GHG emissions (ah, civilization). Sounds bad, but here's the good news: termites are fabulously nutritious. Pound for pound, termites contain as much as or more (depending on the species) protein than beef, but with less fat and zero hormones, antibiotics, additives, etc. This means that termites can satisfy the protein needs of the entire world, if only their consumption were acceptable in "developed" countries.
Here's how people in my village in Western Kenya reacted when a colony of termites popped up: they went bananas. Students from the secondary and primary schools, faculty, staff, and other community members showed up en masse to collect the swarming insects after word (rather quickly) got out. I'm not quite up to speed on the finer points of termite ecology (I thought you only found them in mounds and fished them out with twigs like the chimps on TV??), but for whatever reason these termites were sporadically popping out of holes in the ground on our combination cow pasture/volleyball court. As they did, gleeful gatherers immediately surrounded the holes, snatching the insects by the wings and placing them into bags, cups, or, occasionally, straight into their mouths (kind of like every person picking strawberries, ever). The preferred way of eating termites, however, is lightly fried with a dash of salt--no added oil needed, as their little bodies are coated with their own brand of it already. The wings fall off during the frying process, so you simply shake the pan around outside and blow on it to get them out. Then, you eat! I didn't particularly care for the taste, but I didn't dislike it, either. Mixing the fried termites with some rice, veggies, and soy sauce would make a significant improvement on the experience. Or maybe in tacos? Or chili?...This is a topic that deserves more exploration.