Kinshasa (AFP) - In Kinshasa's Gambela market shoppers can find insects for every occasion -- from unctuous white weevil larvae for fancy dinners to crispy caterpillars and snacky termites that stick in your teeth.
They may be an unbeatably cheap source of protein, but DR Congo's many insect connoisseurs insist they also have real gastronomic value. And the crowds pressing around the insect sellers at the market show that the Congolese can't get enough of them -- crushed, boiled or fried.
"The caterpillars and the other insects we eat are very rich in protein," said Maguy Manase, a seller at the market.
Caterpillars are sold living, dried or boiled up into a kind of porridge. Pyramids of them are piled up on old wooden stalls or on the ground in the huge market. Termites, however, are only sold alive, ladled fresh into customers' bags. There are grasshoppers too, when they are in season.
Prices vary wildly from one type of insect to the next. Elise Yawakana has treated herself to six fat larvae at 1,000 Congolese francs (around 80 euro cents or $1.10) each.
For the woman in her 60s, they were worth it for a "special menu or a luxury meal". A plastic cup full of caterpillars on the other hand will set you back only 1,500 francs (1.20 euro, $1.60).
Ninety percent of the DR Congo's population live on less than $1.25 a day, according to the United Nations.
- 'I prefer insects to meat' -
Caterpillars are "better than fresh meat", declared Marie Nzumba, who has been selling them for 15 years.
Conscious of insects' high nutritional value, the DR Congo government has been encouraging families to include insects in their children's diet.
The Boyambi health centre in the capital, run by the Salvation Army, even offers daily courses on how to cook insects.
Nurse Emilie Kizayako Mpiedi encourages mothers to supplement the diets of their breastfed babies after six months with a porridge made from caterpillar flour.
With more than half of all children under five in the DR Congo suffering from either chronic or acute malnutrition, according to the World Food Programme, insects could be a key part of the solution.
Caterpillars in particular are "within everyone's budget", but that does not mean that they, or insects in general, are "the food of the poor", the nurse said.
One in three people in the world already eat insects, a recent report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation found, encouraging the consumption of insects "to respond to problems of food security".
"Edible insects contain high-quality proteins, vitamins and amino acids," the report said, urging the development of insect farms.
For the moment in the DR Congo, insects are harvested directly from the wild, mostly from the jungles and forests of Bandundu and Equator provinces in the west of the country.
And people eat them just because they like the taste, said Bonaventure, a smiling driver, as he munched his way through a plate of insects in a little Kinshasa cafe. "It's good. I prefer insects to meat," he said.
Whatever the caterpillar recipe, whether the bugs are smothered in "mwambe" (peanut sauce), served with vegetables or fried with tomatoes, Bonaventure loves them all.
Lots of roadside food stalls and shacks serve chillied insects to spice up "fufu", the stodgy Congolese staple of corn meal and manioc.
And it's also great party food, said restaurateur Ginette Ngandu, adding that her customers often place their caterpillar orders in advance.