Bizarre Culinary, Famine Season's Legacy

Ungkrung (teak tree caterpillar) is the symbol of Gunungkidul's local wisdom in making use of the resources existing around them. The seasonal culinary is now a sought after delicacy for tourists, owing to its good taste and unique form.

Updated on 11 July 2019

See 5 photos of Ungkrung

The people of Gunungkidul have long been known for their unique and creative culinary. The tough environment of limestone hills requires them to cleverly utilize the existing resources. Take a look at tiwul and gatot (both are made from cassava), and fried grasshopper, the original Gunungkidul cuisine consumed as an alternative carbohydrate source during famine season. Similarly, they overcome the lack of protein intake commonly obtained from livestock by applying an entomophagic lifestyle, i.e. by consuming insects, including grasshoppers and teak tree caterpillars. Quite extreme, right?

Teak tree caterpillar is indeed not as popular as fried grasshopper that's more common in Gunungkidul. The larvae of Hyblaea purea moths only emerge during the beginning of rainy season when withered teak leaves are re-growing. This is when Gunungkidul locals would go into the teak forest in groups to collect the larvae and cocoon. The season of teak tree caterpillar ends when the larvae has completely metamorphosed into moths, only couple of weeks since the population explosion begins.

Due to its seasonal nature, it's rather hard for YogYES team to find where we could buy this peculiar food. Unlike fried grasshopper, which are commonly sold on the roadside, teak tree caterpillars can only be found at certain dining places, like Lesehan Pari Gogo in Wonosari. The freshly-collected caterpillars and cocoons are first cleaned to remove the hairs, and then steamed to eliminate the toxin contained in the skin. Once cooked, the caterpillar can be stored for further processing or immediately fried in bacem (sweet marinate), balado, or other seasoning and turned into a dish or snack.

When we first saw the dish, there was a little bit of confusion. It didn't look as extreme as fried grasshoppers, but the appearance still caused a yucky feeling for those who haven't been familiar with this kind of food. Fortunately, our curiosity overcame our fear of the shape of those moth larvae, so we braced ourselves and took a bite of the fried caterpillars. The taste was dominated by the crunchy exoskeleton of the caterpillars, exactly like when we ate fried grasshoppers. The crunchy sensation was then immediately replaced by a salty and savory taste from the internal part of the caterpillar, just like prawn. The yucky feeling instantly vanished, replaced by an addiction that got us wanting for more and more!

According to Eddy Guano, one of Gunungkidul locals who like to consume teak tree caterpillars, the practice of eating these uncommon animals began from gaber era (economy crisis and famine season in the 1960s). Since food materials were pricey and scarce, Gunungkidul locals learned to adapt by utilizing alternative sources of food they could find, including grasshoppers and teak tree caterpillars, to fulfill their demand for protein commonly obtained from meat. Since they tasted quite delicious, the practice was then handed down through generations as a precious local wisdom.

"For the locals, being able to find sources of food from our own back yard is more than enough," said Eddy. "We even got to the point where we have scheduled the side dish we'll have, a result of our habit of watching the emergence of animals or plants around us."

Despite its delicious taste, some people may not be able to enjoy the unique taste of this food as it has allergic effects. People who are allergic to seafood (prawn, crab, squid, etc.) ay also show similar allergic reaction when eating teak tree caterpillars. This is because the caterpillar's tissue, and some other animal species, contains tropomyosin protein group.

"To avoid allergic reaction, try one first, then wait about 10 minutes to see if there's any symptoms of allergy, then try a bit more. If there is no reaction in 30 minutes, you're free to eat as much as you want," said Eddy, who graduated from the Faculty of Biology UGM. "Just try to eat them only in reasonable amount since the allergic reaction differs between one person and another."

You might say 'ewww' when seeing this food, but it turns out that teak tree caterpillar has high nutrition content! According to the data from the FAO and the Enthomology Department of Iowa State University, every 100 grams of dried caterpillars contains up to 6 grams of protein, even higher than the 26 grams of protein contained in beef. Teak tree caterpillar also contains lower fat than beef-only about 5.6 grams per 100 grams of dried caterpillars (compared to 15 grams of fat/100 grams of beef).

In addition to its high nutrition values, teak tree caterpillars also have higher productivity with lower carbon footprint, making them more eco-friendly. Caterpillars and other insects reproduce at a higher mass than cows bred in farms, and with smaller land requirement. This is what triggers the establishment of edible insect farms to fulfill the demand of entomophagic lifestyle in developed countries. It's no wonder that the FAO lists insects as potential primary source of protein in the future, about to replace livestock that we've commonly known nowadays.

So, still hesitate to eat teak tree caterpillars?