The Trouble with Coconut Worms

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In Vietnam there is nothing more exciting for me than strolling along the dirty narrow streets discovering dishes you won’t even find at the Dong Xuan market in Berlin. Growing up Vietnamese in Germany’s Pfalz region, my parents’ cooking was my only exposure to authentic Vietnamese fare. It feels even more like paradise in Vietnam, where “What do you want to eat?” comes before the “How are you?”. This time, my personal highlight wasn’t noodle soup that had been simmering for hours but something very simple for a change: the coconut worm.

To put it bluntly, the coconut worm is a larva and has various names: sago worm, duong dua, red palm weevil larva, or (most simply) the rhynchophorus ferrugineus larva. A Google image search spits out similar pictures for each name: a thumb-sized yellow worm with a brown head. Sometimes it is bathed in fish sauce along with chili and cilantro leaves; sometimes it is grilled and skewered like a shish kebab.

You get fresh coconut worms in the rainy season – at the height of summer in Germany. At this time the red palm weevil lays its eggs in a palm tree, and soon thereafter up to 300 larvae hatch and gorge themselves on the palm’s fibers. They get very fat and up to five centimeters long.

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I ate my first coconut worms at my family’s place in a small village in the Mekong delta of southern Vietnam, where people have their homes directly on the riverbank, where a boat – along with a moped, the Asian equivalent to the family station wagon – is indispensable for getting around. Palm trees grow everywhere, and it’s so humid you sweat doing nothing. It is a Vietnamese custom to regale one’s guests with a special dish. It is also customary to insist until they can no longer refuse. And that’s how I ended up eating a coconut worm – if it were only as easy as it sounds.

My mother always said: “If other people can eat it, you can too. And you can’t judge what you haven’t tried.” In Europe this mantra works rather well, and if you grew up in a place where the pig’s stomach is the main attraction of a yearly festival, nothing can rattle you – except for a living coconut worm.

The coconut worm is most delicious in its full vitality. Sautéing them makes them tougher; their juices remain intact when eaten alive. Before landing in a bowl with fish sauce it is placed in a salt solution and washed. The Vietnamese love to eat the coconut worm with some proper booze. And I was in dire need of alcohol.

Sitting on the street in front of my aunt’s house (the only one in the whole village), I tried with all my mind’s might to get used to the sight of wriggling worms. I’m not embarrassed to say that I was disgusted to the core. I did, after all, grow up in potato country. But I knew my mother would be ashamed of me if I didn’t try it – and in full honesty, pig stomach doesn’t look that appetizing at first either.

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It took a while before the drinking gave me enough courage to grab one of the worms with my chopsticks. First, you have to bite off the larva’s brown pincers and spit them out; otherwise you can get hurt. Then you put it all in your mouth at once and chew that juicy piece nice and slow as if it were a good steak.

The taste is strangely very familiar. Maybe it’s because of the fish sauce I poured into my bolognese. The consistency reminds me of mussels. Contrary to all hallucinations you don’t feel any wriggling in your mouth – the worm, motionless, surrendered to my chewing.

The coconut worm is loaded with protein, and I can imagine such a fatty worm as a meat substitute. It was, at least, more satisfying than tofu from the health food store. And it is meatier than a Thai cricket. Indigenous people in Papua New Guinea or Bornea have eaten coconut worms for some time, so it can’t be that unhealthy.

I had to think of the Chef’s Table episode with Alex Atala, who serves ants in his two-star restaurant and isn’t sure if caviar is as amazing as everyone says. Our sense of taste is so visually and culturally based we can only feel disgust when familiarity is lacking. Disgust is, basically, a lack of knowledge. As soon as we’ve gotten over ourselves – and the strange is no longer strange – we can create marvelous culinary gems with uncommon ingredients such as the coconut worm. The potato also took a while before shedding its reputation as a poisonous, exotic ornamental plant and gaining social acceptance.

My cousins in Vietnam told me you can only find the coconut worm on dead palms. Until starting my research I didn’t know that the worm is responsible for killing the palms. That the sale of coconut worms is prohibited in Vietnam because of this was kept from me.

coconut worm

For some years the coconut worm, or palm weevil, has caused a veritable palm epidemic – and there are still no effective means against it. Instead groundwater is being contaminated with pesticides, poisoning all animals and insects except the highly resistant palm weevil.

It benefits from our large demand for cheap palm oil, which can be found in just about every other product in the supermarket. Where rainforests with a diversity of approximately 30 million animal and plant species have given way to monocultures, paradise awaits the coconut worm: nothing but tasty palm trees and no natural predators, for they disappeared with the rainforest.

The bug spreads via uninspected palm tree imports. This has allowed it to travel from Asia to the Mediterranean, where its larvae, in the worst-case scenario, have devoured palm trees to death. Vacation islands where imported palms decorate beach promenades have been especially affected. The estimate in 2015 was that 90% of the palms in Mallorca were infested. It will still take some time until the delicious coconut worms are available at European beach resorts.

Images: Dieu-Thanh Hoang, Wikimedia Commons

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