Most people know red ants as tiny creatures whose bite can leave you squirming in pain. But to diners in India’s eastern states of Chhattisgarh, Odisha, and Jharkhand, red ants and their eggs make a fine chutney. The paste is a sought-after delicacy, particularly in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region, where it’s called chaprah (meaning “leaf basket,” a reference to the nests that the ants make using the leaves of the sal tree).
Collecting the insects from local forests is an arduous task. Each nest is surrounded by protective rings of male ants guarding the egg-laying females. At the slightest sign of danger, the males will attack. As they endure painful bites, the harvesters crush the males, add them to their bags, and then move on to the females and their eggs.
To make the chutney, villagers first crush and dry all the ants and eggs, then grind them with a mortar and pestle. Then they’ll add tomatoes, coriander, garlic, ginger, chili, salt, and a bit of sugar to create a smooth, orange paste. Sometimes, they might cook the paste further with oil and chopped onions.
Vendors sell the chutney at markets in small packets of sal leaves. First-time tasters, take note: It will be very spicy. The ants’ high levels of formic acid, coupled with the added seasonings, make this chutney extremely hot.