Everything You Need To Know About Odisha’s Red Ant Chutney & Other Insects That Are Widely Consumed In India


Some may squirm at the idea of it but entomophagy, which is the practice of eating insects, is quite common in many traditional communities of India and not just in other parts of the world. People were reminded of this tradition with the recent news when Odisha gave its native Similipal kai chutney – made with red weaver ants by the tribal people of Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district – a GI tag. The ant chutney is made by grinding a mixture of salt, ginger, garlic, and chillies.

Besides being a rich source of protein and a superfood, in the terrains that allow it, consuming insects is a sustainable practice. Think of it as a way of saving the planet. Often showcased as an alternative to meat, which is known to release greenhouse gases, consuming insects proves to be better for the environment.

Red Ant Chutney


My initial knowledge of insects being consumed was merely restricted to Southeast Asian countries like China and Vietnam, until I visited Nagaland last April, where I learned that hornets are a popular delicacy in communities there. Naga Chef and Social Entrepreneur Athan Zimik explains, “Some insects that are sought commonly (in Nagaland) include the Hornet’s Larvae, the highest in the insect food chain, and the most expensive delicacy with a kilogram of it costing INR 2500-3500. The ritual of harvesting starts at the onset of seed-sowing festivals where the Hornets are lured with pieces of insects and later hooked with a string that is attached to a white paper-like flower. They are then followed even a few kilometres away and their nesting place is observed by climbing trees. Once identified, a leaf from a branch is folded and tied near the hornet’s nest. The act of tying a leaf signifies that someone has found it and is honoured by the community. No other person can take that anymore. They are then kept till late September, pre-rice harvest, and post-rice harvest. Their size and readiness for harvest are determined by the amount of soil dug out by the Hornet. Which can go up to 20 baskets. The placement of the moon also plays an important role.” 

Photograph Courtesy: Athan Zimik

The bee/hornet larvae are prepared using bamboo shoots water, roasted green chilli, wild ginger, and Naga garlic, which is a popular delicacy among the Naga people. 

The practice of eating insects or worms in the Northeast isn’t something new but it is something that dates back to the hunting days. Meat wouldn’t be available every time and so hunters would rely on eating insects, which were readily available. The culinary culture in these regions today goes beyond just sustenance. It is deeply rooted in their traditions and plays a significant role in their social and cultural gatherings. 

Silk Worms

While silkworms are reared for their thread in Assam, it is also eaten by certain communities there, the Eri Polu or the Eri silkworm in particular. Assamese home chef Gitika Saikia says, “The Eri Polu’s availability increases only around March-April as before that, during the winter season, the silkworms build their cocoons and stay in it. Once they are ready for consumption, we get the cocoon, take out the silkworm and give the cocoon back to the weavers as that is a source of threads.”  

I am fascinated and further question her on the preparations. “It depends on how you’re serving the dish and what are you pairing it with. If you’re pairing it with rice, it is only stir-fried with green chillies, salt and a hint of turmeric. In my community, we also make Khar (a type of curry) with Eri Polu. We also pair it with black urad dal during Bihu,” she adds.

Photograph Courtesy: Gitika Saikia

“Until recently, silkworms were eaten rarely in Nagaland, but due to the demands in the market, it has been commercially reared for consumption,” Zimik shares. “They are often prepared by cooking until the water is completely dried or by deep-frying, roasting, or boiling with various herbs and incorporating them into various dishes like chutneys, stews, or rice-based meals.”

Red Ant Eggs/Larvae

Unlike the Chattisgarh or Odisha tribes, Assamese communities don’t eat the red ants but only their eggs. “We believe if we kill the ant, who will lay the eggs? So we make an ecological balance,” Saikia shares. “Red ant eggs are only available towards the end of March and April, and there’s a 15-day window, so it’s a hit-or-miss. Sometimes we will see something hanging and when we go to take it down, we realise they’ve all become ants. It’s really difficult to source them and that’s why people wait for an entire year because you can’t rear them,” she further explains. 

Photograph Courtesy: Gitika Saikia

The sour ant larvae are also consumed in Nagaland. They are great flavour enhancers and are often cooked with yam stew, used as a condiment or are commonly used in chutneys.

Other Insects

Eesel or winged termites are eaten in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and water beetles are consumed by tribes in North East India. Water beetles, however, seem to be declining. “They are very difficult to get because it’s normally available in ponds. But then again, due to the use of pesticides which seep into waterbodies, all these insects die,” Saikia shares. 

Zimik tells us about Cicada or Changva, another important insect that tells the Naga tribes about seasonal change by its singing. “They are only eaten on the second day of moult when they shed their hard shell. Their significance is also seen in the patterns of the Naga textile like the Chongkhom shawl.” “Palm weevil larvae, Kachak, and Khraku, the red-coloured larvae found in decayed roots of a creeper and trees that give sweet saps are some of the favourites,” he adds. 

You might think that entomophagy is only practiced among ethnic or tribal communities in India but it’s common to find these dishes on the menus of many local restaurants and hotels in regions that consume insects. Given the fact that many people who visit the Northeast barely get used to the flavours of certain dishes or can’t accept the idea of eating certain meats like pork and beef, being open to the idea of consuming insects is far-fetched, which is understandable but calls for a larger conversation of preserving dying culinary cultures and fostering sustainability. 

- Lifestyle Editor


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