Thursday, October 25, 2012

Cooking Masonja

This is one of the few non-vegan recipes you'll see me writing about... but it was just too good to pass up.

Plus, these animals have many of the criteria that cause people to turn to plant-based food: low in fat and cholesterol, abundantly available in nature without factory farming (at least where they are from), full of healthy protein and a shell that you might compare to fibre in its effect on the digestive tract. Furthermore, many vegans I know still eat honey, an insect's product - and I, too, am talking about insects here.

When I was in Zimbabwe I was told that "Mopane-worms", or masonja, caterpillars found on mopane and mango trees in Southern Africa, are a rather common and delicious dish of the region. I didn't manage to get a hold of a plate of the delicacy - I did, however, manage to purchase a little bag of dried critters with the ominous label "MADORA" written on it, as well as instructions on how to prepare them.

Shuttled them back through Mozambique and South Africa, passed under the radar of German customs and presented them at my parents' house. Where I also finally proceeded to fry them up last weekend!

Before soaking...

The first step was a few hours soak in salt water - the previously dried and rather beef-jerky-like bits turned into plump, black, white-spotted caterpillars.

... and after.

Next, we discarded the soaking water and gave them a little boil in more salted water. A strange smell, like a mix of cow stable and fine tea leaves, wafted from the pot...

Finally, the beasts were thrown in a pan full of piping hot vegetable oil and fried there until crispy. Meanwhile, I prepared a little sauce of onions, tomatoes and piri-piri (little hot chilies) - the only thing missing in the end was a good batch of pap, sadza, or masa: maize porridge.

African groceries, German equipment

The onion-tomato-affair reminded me a lot of evenings by the fire down South, but I have to say that the masonja were a bit, well, unexciting: they tasted like very crispy, slightly salty and otherwise somewhat bland bits of protein. Maybe worm-shaped bits of seitan with a crunchy outside would actually be pretty similar...

At least my mother almost died from disgust when she saw my dad and me chowing down on our masonja, and that's worth something!

Sunday, October 21, 2012


With being back at my desk comes the need to play around and bide my time. I've been extremely fascinated by the spatial structure of information lately - how can we map the ways we interact, communicate, live?

Twitter is one of the most popular ways people share their "status" with anyone who cares to know. The site provides a cool streaming API that allows developers to listen to and filter through all the data that goes through in real time. It turns out it's reasonably easy to access using Python, and the last couple of days I wrote a script that listens to geo-tagged tweets.

Any tweet with coordinates then gets put on a map, and any tweet with an origin as well as a mention of another place is represented as a line between the two points. Within a few minutes, you can see the connected countries - mostly Europe and North America, with a few bursts in Japan and Australia and the occasional life sign from South Africa and South America - light up. And, maybe unsurprisingly, most people seem to tweet about nearby places.

I'm really excited about learning to use APIs and the amazing Python Basemap. What other interesting things can be done with all this data?
(Also, my plotting is waaay slower than my streaming. I can't keep up with twitter! Anyone have a good idea why that might be?)