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Teak and Teak Caterpillar Cocoons

Teak (Tectona grandis) is a wonderfully versatile wood that is good for building, furniture making and also fine carving. It keeps well indoors and out and is so highly valued here that in Javanese, the name for teak, kayu jati, also means real wood.

Although most government teak forests in Java have been razed to the ground in recent decade’s epidemics of illegal logging, there is still some teak left.In fact most of the teak you find growing now is in villagers’ forest-gardens called kebun, especially in traditional teak producing country, such as in Wonogiri, Bojanegara, Blora, and Ngawi in Java. Godeliva D Sari explains further about this versatile and often used material.

These days the teak groves in these regions are busy with a seemingly mysterious activity. If you listen carefully behind the sound of cicadas singing and birds chirping you can hear the crunch-crunch sound of millions of caterpillars eating away at the broad and raspy teak leaves. Once you hear then you begin to notice that they are literally everywhere around you. Then you begin to notice that nearly every single teak leaf is being eaten right before your eyes.

Here I am in a teak grove in a remote village in East Java and on the ground I can see millions of black droppings slightly smaller than a match head. Look up, and crisscrossing all the space around the teak trees are glistening threads of silk the caterpillars are secreting as they munch away at the foliage and prepare to weave a cocoon around themselves and curl inside the last corner of the last leaf they consume before going into hibernation.

The eaten leaves will fall to the ground where the cocoons inside hope to continue their metamorphoses until they emerge as moths from the Endoclita genus. Watching the busy caterpillars with keen interest are the villagers. When the cocoons have formed the whole neighborhood starts to scour the teak grove’s floor to collect the teak cocoons to cook and eat as a snack or as part of a meal with rice.

Teak caterpillar cocoons, or enthung jati — as they are called here — are definitely not for those of faint constitution. Even in the village the difference of opinion between those who eat them and those who do not is completely diametric. Some people love teak cocoons but others burst out into an allergic rash when they eat this seasonal delicacy.

Last year I sampled some but although I did not have an allergic reaction I did not like the texture of the insects. That time I fried the cocoons in a little cooking oil with garlic, shallots, chilies, salt and palm sugar and the cocoons would burst unpleasantly when I chewed them.

This time I was determined to prepare them better and I was told by an expert that to curdle the cocoons juicy insides and thus avoid the unpleasant burst of sludgy insect when I chew, I should cover the cocoons in boiling water before I fry them with the spices.

This year is a good year for teak caterpillar cocoons because there was rain in October, which allowed the leaves of the deciduous teak to bud early. As soon as the teak has a full cover of leaves the caterpillars attack and as soon as the cocoons appear the cocoon collectors descend on to the teak grove floor.

The whole neighborhood is here, young and old, men and women, children still in their schools uniforms, everyone is scraping the ground and picking up every bit of curled teak leaf to open it and hopefully reveal a tiny cocoon inside. People bring plastic cups and jars to collect the grubs and sit or squat on the floor all day, moving along at the speed of a sloth, combing through the debris of the ground with their fingers.

A small market for the cocoons has emerged and they fetch a worthwhile price. For a glass of the critters in a grove in a remote village you must spend at least Rp 3000, but travel down the dusty road several kilometers and you will be paying Rp 5000 for the same amount.

Once they arrive in the big city they can fetch very high prices as some wealthy people are nostalgic about eating teak cocoons. Former president Soeharto reportedly is among those teak cocoon connoisseurs. Although teak cocoons cannot be found on supermarket shelves, you might just be lucky enough to find some in your local bird market, where they will be displayed alongside other bird food like ant larvae, crickets, centipedes and scorpions. Song bird owners will buy them as a treat for their pets.

Other than being a crispy treat, cocoons serve another traditional role in rural Javanese communities. They act as weather forecasters. The elders in the teak grove here tell me that when the rainy season begins and the teak caterpillars come, it means there is going to be a dry spell of at least two weeks.

When the caterpillars have completed their metamorphoses as cocoons that then emerge as pretty moths the rains will come again. I buy two cups of cocoons and try this recipe called kering enthung (crispy cocoons) at home:

If you like the insect taste, you might also want to sample locusts, flying white ants and gendhon grubs. You are in luck; all these edible and exotic insects are in season now with the monsoon rains.

Kering Enthung

Ingredients:

-two cups of fresh teak cocoons -cooking oil -shallot -slice of crushed galangal -garlic -salam leaf -coconut sugar -half a handful of chilies (I like my insects hot!) -salt -sweet soy sauce

Method:

Douse the cocoons with boiling water; this will make the insides firm rather than slimy.

Dice and fry all ingredients except cocoons in a tablespoonful of oil until the aroma rises. Add a little water and keep stirring until sugar caramelizes, then put cocoons in. Serve with warm white aromatic rice.