Roasted Termites Anyone?


Ayanna Nahmias, Editor-in-ChiefLast Modified: 04:00 AM EDT, 3 September 2009

Two Rabbis
Two Rabbis

"Should you be allowed to convert, what food will you miss most?" asked the three Orthodox Rabbis who sat before me.

I was slightly taken aback and had to pause to think about my response.  In my post, The Olfactory Safari, I wrote about my mother's cooking and the different foods and smells that I relished as a child.  Although I had not eaten goat since my return from Africa, one of my favorite food was Nyama Mbuzi. One friend of mine told me how, upon being asked what food she would most miss, she replied "shrimp".  Her family made their living as shrimpers, and she said that she most missed eating these tiny crustaceans.

Like giving birth, each conversion is a unique experience, and those who have gone before are often courted as resources. The advice and insight provided by previous converts, helps to assuaged the fears of those waiting to be judged by a religious court, who would test and ultimately approve or disapprove their conversion.

But, at that moment as I sat in front of these religious men, with implacable expressions, the best response I could summon to their question, was that I would miss cheeseburgers.  I have never been a fan of cheeseburgers, because they have always made my stomach hurt. I don't know if it was the beef, the combination of the meat with cheese, or that it was too rich and greasy. In any case, looking into the faces of these rabbis, the quickest response I could pluck from a head crammed full of potential questions and responses, was this iconic American sandwich. It is only now, as I have begun to mine the depths of my memories, that I recalled another food that I savored almost as much as goat.

I was first exposed to this exotic staple when we lived in Ile Ife, Nigeria.  My father was a professor of mathematics and physics at the University of Ile Ife, now known as Obafemi Awolowo University; and we attended a primary school in town. Late in the year, when snow blanketed most parts of America; in sub-Saharan Africa, the Harmattan winds would blow from north to south and carry with it, the red dust and sandy particles of the land it scrubbed clean in its wake. The impossibly dry winds, chafed parched brown skin, while grainy particulates tried to breach the lash cloaked barrier of eyes slit against its onslaught. Most days I walked to school, even though it was off of the University campus and nearly 2 miles away.  However, during the Harmattan season, my father would drive me to the school, where upon arrival, I would alight from his white Peugeot 505 colored rust by a fine coat of red dust.

Dressed in blue and white uniforms, I headed through the gates protecting the courtyard and assumed my place in line, facing a tall pole from which a slack green and white flag hung. During Harmattan season in order to mitigate exposure, roll call and the pledge were hastily recited in the administrative building that housed the Principal's office. As we left that building to head over to our class, termites started to land on me in ever greater numbers. At first I was scared because I had never seen an insect swarm. They crawled down my shirt, into my socks, and rested on my braided head. The other students seemed oblivious to the crawling insects as we headed toward our respective bunks.

Once inside, it was harder still to concentrate because the winds accelerated, and began to howl and moan as it pushed and hugged the neighboring hills. The insects began to assault barely secured screened windows and doors, made their way into light fixtures where they tossed and turned until they met a most ignoble death. They seemed desperate to find refuge from the prevailing winds that had ripped apart their mounds. A phalanx of soldiers advanced before the queen, as she in her preeminent soft whiteness, was most vulnerable to the harsh elements.  Although I never learned Yoruba, I could tell that the other children were beginning to get excited. White teeth glistened behind well formed lips, deep and purple, pinkish red tongues darted out to moisten them. The children spoke rapidly, and some began to rustle in their chairs, even though the threat of corporal punishment with a flat paddle like instrument, loomed every present, and unlike in America, was often administered.

Finally, after several hours of lessons, during the heat of midday, someone in the courtyard pulled the rope attached to a bell and chain to announce with a ring and a dong, that we were shortly to be released. I shall never forget how neatly my mother packaged my lunch in stackable, round steel tins, three high with a bell jar clamp.  At the bottom was the largest dish were beans, the next smaller tin was rice, and finally plantain at the top.  However, as with most school age children, there existed a hankering for every and anything, that was not prepared at home.

As the tintinnabulous echos faded into the wind, the children burst out of the classroom, dashed across the courtyard, and out into the street beyond.  Normally because of the high incident of pedestrian deaths due to the reckless and fast driving of Nigerian motorists, students were not usually allowed to leave the perimeters of the school grounds. However, this day was the first of the Harmattan season, and cars moved more slowly as drivers tried to navigate and see through windshields increasingly coated with a fine, red dust.

As I stood at the gate, uncertain what to do, some children were coming back with conically wrapped newspaper with contents that looked like roasted seeds.  It looked interesting, but smelled incredible.  I asked a classmate who could speak a little English, what all the fuss was about.  She took me by the hand, and led me across the dusty street to a makeshift stand, where a vendor was scooping termites off the windshields of parked cars, to throw into a heated pounded metal pan.

I was of course horrified when I saw living creatures, blind and writhing, being scooped up, roasted and sold for a few Naira (Nigerian currency). No oil, just writhing bodies crackling and popping, as the vendor skillfully tossed the living layer on top, into the bottom, while at the same time this movement effected the release of their spent wings into the wind to be carried away. Apparently, there are many ways of cooking termites, however in Ile Ife, it was popular to lightly fry the termites in their own fat over a low heat, add a little salt and toss them in the air while cooking to remove their wings; while in Kwara State, Nigeria,the termites are roasted over a fire, sometimes hot coals or fried in a pot. After cooking, the wings are removed and salt is added to taste.

It was unbelievable to me that anyone would or could want to eat insects, but as I continued to watch the process, I was mesmerized by the vendor's fluid and expert hand motions, and found myself salivating at the savory release of the termites' cooked fragrance.  It was at that point that I took some Naira out of my skirt pocket, and asked the girl to buy me some to eat.  From that day forward, I always yearned for Harmattan season so that I could buy from a roadside vendor, freshly roasted termites.  And had I recalled how much I liked this food, I might have told the rabbis, that what I would miss most, would be hot, fresh roasted termites.

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