Thursday, November 24, 2005

Swarming Supper

Fancy locust shish-kebab, locust chips or stir-fried locusts? Apparently, locusts should be cooked alive, otherwise they become bitter! The locust plague that attacked Eilat at the end of 2001 gave Israelis as well as workers from Thailand (where locusts are considered a delicacy) an opportunity to try these recipes.

While most Westerners don’t normally regard them as part of a kosher diet, the surprising fact is that the Torah in VaYikra 11 explicitly permits some types of locusts. The code of Jewish Law (Yoreh Deah 85) summarises the tradition for permitted locusts: any variety that has four walking legs, four wings that cover the majority of its length and girth, as well as two extra legs for jumping. In later Jewish literature, the presence of a ‘chet’-shaped mark on the insect’s thorax was also considered evidence of its kosher status.

Although locusts don’t require shechitah (just image if they did!) one must ensure they are dead before consumption and not simply pluck them straight from the air to eat. A Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 13:7) describes the ancient Egyptians attempting to profit from the plague of locusts by pickling them. Indeed, locusts remain a highly-prized dainty in some countries. While we would normally associate a swarm of locusts with catastrophic devastation, for many North African and Yemenite Jews, the 2001 plague in Southern Israel (the first for over 40 years) evoked memories of a culinary treat not tasted in a generation.

So why aren’t locusts on the menu in my local kosher restaurant? The Shulchan Aruch notes that in order to actually eat them, we require an unbroken tradition passed through the generations as to the identity of the correct species. In Ashkenazi, and most Sefardi communities, this tradition has not been preserved and although there is plenty of literary evidence that locusts were eaten in many countries where Jews lived through history, most communities have discontinued their consumption.

Rabbi Ari Zivotofsky, a prolific contemporary writer who is fascinated with obscure kashrut issues, quotes numerous sources to indicate that until quite recently, the consumption of locusts was very common; nowadays the tradition is maintained by a small number of Yemenite Jews. Eager to ensure that the tradition is preserved and even spread abroad, Zivotofsky organised a ‘halachic dinner’ in Israel at which he demonstrated the kosher varieties of locusts according to the Yemenite tradition. He then served locusts for desert! Another expert, Dr. Zohar Amar, himself of Yemenite descent, provided the tradition through which the insects were identified. A number of academic studies have appeared on the subject; the Encyclopaedia Talmudit devotes seven pages to the subject and issue 19 of the Israeli Halachic Journal ‘Techumin’ offers 17 pages of detailed analysis from a Rabbi Sari in collaboration with Dr. Amar.

The likelihood is that cultural factors and unavailability (they’re not too common in Northern Europe!) led to the loss of the tradition. Will they ever appear on Ashkenazi menus? While Zivotofsky, who clearly has a very strong stomach, would have us eating all manner of strange foods, I think it may be some time.
A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

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