Three-and-a-half-year-old Shahbad Khan is a hero at his anganwadi. At break time, kids gather around as Shahbad doles out his favourite snack to his friends. These aren’t chocolates or biscuits — they’re fried mealworms. Though that might sound unusual to some, Shahbad and his nine-year-old brother Shahul don’t care. Shahbad loves mealworm fries as a side dish, and Shahul relishes mealworms stuffed in sandwiches and burgers. “They are crispy and tasty. I just love them,” Shahul said.
So how did these two brothers find this unique snack? It started two-and-a-half years ago when their father, Firoz Khan, began worm farming out of a bedroom in his home in Kundayithode of Kozhikode district. Firoz once worked as a tailor and later shifted careers to animal rearing. He eventually learnt about worm farming and decided to give it a shot, though he had no idea how to get started. But a friend gave him a few critters from Thailand and he forged ahead from there.
"Initially I had no idea. I started learning how to breed them, feed them and how to use them. Everyone around discouraged me. They asked whether I was crazy. But I was passionate so I learnt the techniques to keep them," Firoz tells TNM.
Firoz later learnt that he wasn’t just breeding any worms; he was breeding mealworms, which are considered a delicacy around the world. There are four stages of transformation for these worms — egg, worm, pupa and adult. The adults are beetles that can be bred, but the worms can be eaten and are also used as poultry feed.
"I tried eating them and it was very tasty. Then I started learning about its nutritional value and learnt that they’re actually a kind of health food. It has fibre, protein and vitamins. So I gave some to my children and they love it, " he said. Shahbad and Shahul now proudly help their father with his worm farming business, and Firoz has realised there is a huge market value for mealworms if they get the proper reach.
Firoz now gets a number of visitors from across Kerala to his shop. He has also found that people are interested in learning the art of worm farming. "I started training some people in worm farming. A few months after I started farming, people started looking for me to buy, taste and learn about worms," Firoz recalled. That’s when his family realised he was serious about his new endeavor.
Shahul and Shahbad assist by demonstrating how fried worms can be eaten.
"This helps visitors shed their inhibitions. You can add these worms with any dish you like. Sandwiches, burgers, ice cream, pizza or as a fry for your meals. I have tried them all and it enhances the taste of the dish," Firoz explains.
Though many customers buy worms as poultry feed, there are some who come to consume the words themselves. Firoz believes that they will soon be an important part of Kerala cuisine.
"I am sure that it will be one of our side dishes soon, like chicken, fish or any other meat. I have seen more and more people getting interested in it," he said.
Wheat and oats are the major feed given to mealworms. "You can mix them both together or give it to them separately. As we cannot provide water to them directly, I feed them carrot, beetroot or potato as they have high water content. But vegetables are not their major food," he said.
"Worms were eaten by our ancestors and it is common in many parts of the world,” he continues.
As the number of worms and visitors began to increase, Firoz realised he was going to need a larger space for his work. "I shifted them out of the bedroom and hired a space near the highway. Within one-and-a-half-years, I started earning a good profit out of these worms. Now I live through this business," Firoz said.
He also says that it is a perfect farming option for housewives and small-scale farmers since you only require one room to start out. "You can even grow them inside your house as it won’t create any foul smell or be unhygene. They are very neat and tidy. They are not the worms that comes out of decayed things," he said.