Cassia tree larvae central to highland diet

Vietnam's Central Highlands is famed for stir-fried cassia-tree larvae, a dish not for the light-hearted.

A seasonal speciality from late March to early April, the larvae tend to cover the branches of cassia (muong) trees throughout the region, considered a sign of the upcoming rainy season.

Cassia trees, also called Senna siamea, were formerly cultivated as wind-breakers to protect more valuable species across the Central Highlands. Nowadays, they also serve as support for weaker pepper and coffee trees.

The larvae are considered a signal of the upcoming rainy season. Photo by VnExpress/Cong Ly.

The larvae are considered a signal of the upcoming rainy season. Photo by VnExpress/Cong Ly.

Cassia trees have big, long leaves, which attract a large number of feeding larvae. If left unbridled, the larvae could consume all the leaves, leaving the trees skeletally bare.

The larvae have chartreuse-coloured bodies completely harmless to the human touch, in contrast to many other species excreting toxins for self-protection.

As they mature, the larvae move closer to the branch to form a cocoon. Photo by VnExpress/Cong Ly.

As they mature, the larvae move closer to the branch to form a cocoon. Photo by VnExpress/Cong Ly.

Harvesting the cassia tree larvae has, for a long time, been routine across the Central Highlands, especially in Dak Lak Province where farmers tend their fields at dawn to avoid the afternoon heat.

The larvae’s hard outer layers are removed before they are marinated with with green chillies, finely diced garlic and black pepper, and stir-fried with a sprinkle of herbs and lime leaves. Once ready, the larvae turn yellow and soft to touch.

Grilled larvae for the bravest hunger. Photo by VnExpress/Cong Ly.

Grilled larvae for the bravest hunger. Photo by VnExpress/Cong Ly.

Families accompany larvae meals with crunchy grilled rice paper. The larvae are less greasy, with a firmer texture than their famous silkworm counterparts, with a sweet aftertaste.

Beside stir-frying, the larvae, covered in banana leaves or foil, can also be grilled on charcoal, adding a unique earthy taste.

Though tasty, the dish has been known to cause itchiness similar to that of an allergy, warned Thanh, a Dak Lak local.