A Tale of Kutsavi

Kutsavi is the larvae of Ephydra hians, a brine fly common in the salt lakes in the Great Basin, an arid region of the American West. Food resources in the Great Basin are less extensive than those in many other parts of North America. Therefore the Native American groups that lived there had to be resourceful. One group in the Paiute nation was known as the Kutzadika, or “Fly eaters,” although this was not at all their only food; they and the other groups who lived in the Great Basin were nomadic.

Various travelers and scientists have recorded the vast concentrations of this species in its environment:

. . . one of the most striking phenomena is the occurrence of a singular fly, that covers the shore of the lake in a stratum 2 feet in width and 2 inches in thickness, and occurs nowhere else in the county; only at Mono Lake, another alkaline lake, it is seen again. The insect is inseparable from the alkaline water, and feeds upon the organic matter of the above-named alga [species not known] that is washed in masses upon the shore. In the larva state it inhabits the alkaline lake, in especially great numbers in August and September, and the squaws congregate here to fish with baskets for them. Dried in the sun and mixed with flour, they serve as a sort of bread of great delicacy for the Indians. Loew, O. 1876

Two Paiute women collecting Kutsavi; still image from a film recording in the 1980s.

Two Paiute women collecting Kutsavi; still image from a film recording in the 1980s.

In my quest to obtain Kutsavi I searched for websites connected to the park service and cultural groups in the area until I found a generous soul who didn’t mind sending me some. It was a big day when the package arrived. Upon opening the Ziploc bag a scent highly reminiscent of fish food filled the air. I tasted the mass of blackish granules: extremely salty. Far too salty for my preference, but I could definitely see how people could grow rather accustomed to it.

This mix of larvae and pupae had been sun-dried. The left sample is absolutely bone-dry, and will likely keep indefinitely; the one on the right retains a little moisture, and I’ve been keeping it in the fridge. I’ve tried them as a snack, but will one day serve them as a real dish; something with rice and lentils

Information from my source:

Is there a great supply of the insects?

There is a great supply of the pupae in late summer and early fall though they are stuck to the bottom of the lake in the shallow areas near shore. You actually have to dislodge them from the bottom so they’ll pop up to the surface. The dislodging process is the time-consuming part.
How exactly is it collected [by the rangers and also what methods did the Kutzadika employ?]

No one collects Kutsavi anymore with the possible exception of a few Paiutes for demonstration purposes every few years. We also collect a dozen or so pupae for our interpretive tours we lead but we don’t spend the time drying and shelling it obviously. Sometimes visitors are willing to try one or two for the fun of it. It’s also a popular thing for school kids to do during field trips to the lake. The Kutzadika’s would use winnowing baskets to scoop them off the surface of the lake after they are dislodged from the bottom. It’s my understanding that they would scoop them up in these baskets and winnow them until they dried out. The shell or pupae case would then break up and blow away leaving only the nugget or fly inside. What was left after the shells were discarded is what was made into the Kutsavi cereal. I’ve heard of the Paiutes in recent years using window screen to scoop them up off the surface of the water–not as authentic but effective.