In my bleary-eyed early morning condition, all I noticed, at first, when I turned on the television Wednesday was acclaimed Jerusalem chef Moshe Basson presenting some attractive and sophisticated-looking plated creations to the perky news hosts on the Israeli equivalent of the “Today Show” or “Good Morning America.”
I immediately paid attention. Basson, owner and chef of the legendary restaurant Eucalyptus is the king of local cuisine; his specialty is preparing foods from the Bible that are native to the Holy Land. I once spent an afternoon foraging with him for natural salad ingredients in the hills outside Jerusalem followed by an outstanding meal at his establishment beside the walls of the Old City.
But once my morning coffee kicked in and I could see the screen more clearly, it became apparent that he wasn’t discussing any kind of vegetable. On the plate, prepared with side dishes and different sauces, arranged in a fan display, were locusts. Basson, with his expertise on Biblical gourmet traditions, is the local go-to guy when it comes to locust-cooking. Two years ago, fried locusts were the main attraction at a Biblical cuisine celebration at his restaurant a few years ago – the intrepid journalist who covered the event reported that they tasted like “tiny chicken wings.”
The story of the recent arrival of the swarms of locusts in the Middle East seemed amusing to Israelis at first – when they were happening to the Egyptians. It all seemed so timely and biblical – locusts swarming across Egypt as Passover approached. But the smile started to fall off our faces when they crossed the border. Wait a minute - the plagues weren’t supposed to have followed us across the Red Sea, were they? (Parents of young kids immediately began joking that they weren’t surprised - they cope with the ongoing plague of lice on a regular basis, so why shouldn’t locusts be next?)
Science and nature types are naturally excited and interested. Every year, a mission of science and technology journalists from overseas are brought on a junket by Ben-Gurion University. Last year, the university had to quickly adapt its schedule for the visitors when missiles were fired from Gaza. This year, something different, but equally as fascinating to the reporters, is falling out of the sky – the locusts.
Obviously, those who are least amused are the farmers of southern Israel, on whose crops the locusts have been feasting, and across the rest of the country who are worried the attacks might spread.
Which brings us back to cuisine. If the locusts are going to chow down on our crops, it only seems like fair turnabout if we chew on them a bit, too, right? As the only kosher insect, they are perfect for the hostess who hasn’t yet decided on an interesting appetizer for the Passover Seder meal. What could be more appropriate? And since, like fish, they are considered parve, you can serve them with either a dairy or a meat meal.
I’ve learned over the past day that the Jews who have maintained the strongest tradition when it comes to locust-consumption are Yemenite Jews, who, I’m told, will stick them in the oven until they are crunchy and enjoy them like popcorn. They can also be fried, boiled or roasted. This blog entry from a Philadelphia Jewish newspaper has recipes for Locust shish kebab, Locust chips, and a recipe for preparing them Mexican style, with chile powder and lime. (The blog entry features an added bonus of a YouTube video of the author’s son eating a locust for the first time.)
When you think about it, you can’t get trendier. Politically correct cuisine today is all about fresh, local, affordable ingredients for which the process of obtaining them does not damage the environment. Not only is there no damage done by growing or raising them, by eating them, you are helping to rid the environment of, well, a plague.
Locust-eating is part of my American heritage, not just my Jewish one, as they were popular with Native Americans and early pioneers. Anyone who read the classic “Little House on the Prairie” clearly remembers the scenes describing the way the locusts devastated the farms of those who first settled the western U.S.
Locusts land on a sand dune in Negev Desert
“Locusts and grasshoppers are prepared for cooking by removing the wings, the small legs, and the distal portions of the hind legs. Then pull of the head, withdrawing the attached viscera. Boil prepared Rocky Mountain Locusts (Grasshoppers) in salted water. Add cut-up vegetables, butter, salt, and vinegar to the broth and cook until the vegetables are tender. Serve as a thick soup or over boiled rice as a main dish.”
Finally, I have also discovered that locust-eating also has the potential to promote co-existence. My Facebook friends from down under informed me that in 2010, when there was a locust plague in Australia, it sparked some intercultural dialogue.
Shakira Hussein wrote at the time in a blog of a magazine called Crikey that talking locusts was
“opening up some productive conversations between Muslims and Jews. I’m not saying that the plague is going to achieve lasting reconciliation between all the fractious children of Abraham, but it could provide the basis for future discussion.
Or failing that, it could at least provide the catering.
Locusts, as it happens, are the only insect to be regarded as both kosher and halal. Scholarly interpretations vary, with some authorities claiming that this decree only applies to particular varieties of locusts, while others maintain that locusts in general are kosher/halal.
Locust-eating has been under discussion by Muslim and Jews on Facebook – or my little corner of Facebook, at least. The conversation has featured the odd locust-relevant quote from Leviticus, but a lot more talk about how-to Locust-eating is a slightly more interesting topic of conversation that “So, you don’t eat pork? Me neither”
Affordable, healthy, environmentally friendly, and multicultural! Who dares call them a plague now?