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A Diet of Worms....And Other Critters

by M. Leung

Unusual Ingredients

Fall Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(3) pages: 9 to 10

The other day a new student from China came to me for help with European history. One of the terms on his review sheet was 'the Diet of Worms.' The bewildered student remarked, "I thought Europeans didn't eat worms." The only reasonable comment I made was, "Words often have more than one meaning." My mind wandered off to all the worms I have ever eaten and enjoyed.

One Spring Break, I went to Xiamen, where most of the natives rave about their specialty of 'Earth Shoot Jelly.' The earth shoots are a euphemism for sea worms that come close to the shore to spawn during Spring. People harvest the worms, clean them, cook them into a paste and cool them into bowls of jelly. Then, the bowl shaped jelly is cut into thick pieces and served with a special mustard sauce. Since they were in season during early April, I had the pleasure of encountering this Xiamen specialty. The jelly is a tasteless, flavorless substance. The Xiamen natives must like the sauce, which is tangy to the taste and orange in color. I do not particularly like or dislike these worms, because I've had much tastier worms before.

In the seaside town of Hapu, on the Island of Hoi Nam, they have a toss fried sand worm dish that is very famous. Unfortunately, I have never been to Hoi Nam, so I have never tasted these crispy sweet worms. However, when there is a surplus of worms, they dry them in the sun and sell them for soup enhancement. I acquired a few pounds once and added some to soups. They did add a lot of flavor to them.

South China, especially my home town, produces forty percent to half of China's silk. One of the by products of silk production is the delicacy of silk worm pupas. After the silk is taken from the silk worm cocoon, the hard crust that surrounds the pupa is cut open. The crust is then made into little balls of silk cotton, which is used for padding in comforters and jackets. The pupa are then salted and sun dried for sale. These pupas can be eaten as snacks, toss-fried with cucumber slices, or mixed with ground pork and steamed akin to a meatloaf. Besides providing protein, this delicacy adds a lot of taste and sweetness to the dish.

My favorite worm dish is made with paddy worms. Paddy worms are millipede like, soft bodied worms that grow in the waters of the rice fields. Rice farmers harvest them from late Spring to early Summer, sometimes for sale, sometimes as gifts to their friends. When still alive, these worms are put through a few changes of clear, clean water, so as to rinse the mud off. When the water is clear, one can see these beautiful pastel colored ribbons swimming around in the container. Drain the water and feed the worms a cup or two of white wine or sherry. When the worms are drunk, cut them to pieces with a pair of clean cooking shears. Add ground pepper, chopped green onions, cilantro, crushed garlic, fried Chinese crullers cut into small pieces, and an egg, well beaten. Mix the ingredients well and steam the worm mixture for about an hour. When cooled, cut into pieces and pan fry as pancakes and serve hot. The aroma and taste are out of this world! Unfortunately, since the introduction of pesticides, paddy worms are considered poisonous and hazardous to health. Paddy worm connoisseurs still reminisce about their favorite dish.

In addition to worms, Asian cuisine makes good use of insects. On perusing a new book about Cambodia, which arrived recently, I discovered in the food section, the report of insects as main ingredients in a few indigenous dishes. This took me back to my childhood days.

In Southern China, summer evenings can be boring and muggy. Sometimes, we might have an infestation of water cockroaches, as well. When that occurred, people would put a basin of water next to a lighted lamp. The water cockroaches would land in the water. When the basin is filled, one can take them to the kitchen and dump them into a pot of boiling water, add some salt and spice powder (such as five-spice) and cook them for twenty minutes. Then, they can be drained and served. We have turned many a dreary summer evening into welcome joy when we gathered with a group of friends around a bowl full of cooked water cockroaches and talked 'of shoes and ships and sealing wax of cabbages and kings.' According to the Cambodian book, they serve the insects deep fried and the insects are crunchy and crispy.

Another insect that was my mother's favorite was the cicada. In Cambodia, this dish is called chong roet. In China, we have the ordinary cicada, which we prepare similar to the water cockroaches. The other cicada is the one that lives on the cassia tree. This cicada feeds on the sap of the cassia tree and the smell of the flower permeates the whole insect. This cassia cicada is caught and packed in salt, which is known as Cassia Cicada Salt. This salt is worth its weight in gold. The fact that this salt is a well kept secret shows the length aficionadoes of this condiment go to protect their beloved seasoning. The cassia cicada could also be sold for a pretty penny by the piece.

The cassia cicadas can be steamed with other foods as seasoning or steamed and consumed as a snack similar to the water cockroach. The cassia cicada salt has a distinct strong aroma that takes over any dish it is added to. We only serve this salt to those who appreciate the aroma and never bother to find any converts lest it is wasted on the indifferent diner or anyone who might dislike it.

The cicada is a very useful insect. It molts a few times during its life cycle. The cases from these molting periods are used in both Chinese cooking and traditional medicine. For example, these molts are very good tenderizing agents for meat. Together with other ingredients, they are also used to clear the phlegm in throat infections.

Another beneficial insect is the bamboo hornet. In South China, we have an abundance of bamboo. Instead of clotheslines, we use bamboo sticks for hanging clothes in the sun to dry. There is a hornet that likes to make holes in these bamboo sticks for storing their eggs. These hornets are caught and packed in salt. No respectable grandmother in South China would be caught without a jar of these salted hornets. When we had a sore throat, one of these salted hornets in a cup of boiling water would cure the soreness faster than any antibiotic.

It is sad that grandmothers of my generation are gone and no one has taken over the job of preserving bamboo hornets. Nowadays, everyone is using washing machines and dryers for their laundry. Even if people do use bamboo poles to hang their laundry, the bamboo hornets are killed either by pesticides or by environmental pollution.

It is also sad that few are maintaining traditional use of recipes such as those for the silkworm pupa. Should you want to try your hand with these, here are two delicious recipes, one with meat and the other vegetarian. Should you want to learn their medicinal uses or find already prepared dried insects, Chinese herbal stores are wonderful resources.
M. Leung was born in Shanghai and educated in Hong Kong. In 1966, she came to Boston for graduate school, obtained an Masters Degree in library science from Simmons College then a Doctorate in Education from SUNY Buffalo. She has taught at the Amherst Central High School sine 1975 and been editor for her teacher’s union newsletter for eight years.
Silkworm Pupas with Ground Pork
6 to 8 ounces of silkworm pupas
6 ounces ground pork butt
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1 Tablespoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 clove garlic, minced
1 scallion, minced
1 Tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 Tablespoon rice wine
1 teaspoon solid shortening
1. Clean then chop the silkworm pupas. Then mix them with all the other ingredients except the solid shortening, and add half cup of water to thismixture. Stir only in one direction when mixing them.
2. Rub solid shortening on a baking dish and pour the mixture into it. The size of the dish should be such that the contents are about one inch deep.
3. Steam for ten minutes and then serve immediately.
Silkworm Pupas with Cucumber
1/2 pound silkworm pupas
2 medium-sized cucumbers
2 Chinese celery stalks, cut into one-inch lengths
2 Tablespoons corn oil
2 slices fresh ginger
1 clove garlic, mashed
1 scallion, cut into one-inch lengths
salt and pepper, to taste
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1. Clean the silkworm pupas, rinse them several times, drain and set aside.
2. Peel the cucumbers lengthwise leaving alternate strips of skin on them, then cut them lengthwise into four parts, remove and discard the seeds. Next cut the cucumber pieces diagonally into one-inch lengths and set aside.
3. In a skillet, heat the oil then add the ginger, scallions, and garlic and stir-fry until the garlic turns golden. Then quickly add the celery and fry two minutes then add the cucumber strips and fry another minute.
4. Add the silkworm pupas, salt and pepper, and the wine and toss quickly then serve.

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