Published in The Philadelphia Jewish Voice
Did you know that the eighth plague of Egypt in the Passover story is both edible and kosher?
- Audio: Philadelphia Jewish Voice’s President Ronit Treatman interviewed on PRI’s The World: Geo Quiz.
When Abraham and Sarah embarked on their journey from Ur to Canaan, what snacks did they bring along? It is safe to imagine that Sarah packed some roasted, ground locusts in a leather bag. Locust powder was the ancient energy food of the Near East. This non-perishable food was taken on long trips by caravan traders. Entomophagy (eating insects) has persisted in the Middle East and Africa to this day. Locusts are the only insects permitted for kosher consumption in the Torah. The tradition of eating locusts remains in the Yemenite Jewish community. If you are brave and adventurous enough, it is possible to reach back to the origins of our Jewish tradition, and taste the original protein energy food.
What are locusts?
For the past 5,000 years, the desert locust has swarmed through Africa and the Middle East. Locusts are short-horned grasshoppers of the family Acrididae. They breed quickly and grow into nymphs. They keep growing until they become adults. If conditions are right, adult grasshoppers transform themselves into locusts. This occurs if it is warm and rainy. The grasshoppers reproduce at a rate that is too great for them to be sustained by the vegetation where they live. If these grasshoppers feel too many other grasshoppers brush up against them, then their serotonin level changes, causing them to swarm and migrate to a different place with more food. It is at this swarming phase that grasshoppers change into locusts. As they migrate, the locusts eat all the plant life that they encounter along the way. Swarms of locusts are huge, and some have been estimated to have 250 billion creatures. Locusts can fly up to 125 miles a day, at a maximum speed of about 50 miles per hour, up to a height of 6,500 feet above sea level. Each locust eats about two grams of plants daily, an amount equal to the their body mass.
An ancient culinary tradition
According to Dr. Zohar Amar, the head of the Land of Israel studies at Bar-Ilan University, locusts were a common food during the period of the Mishnah (200 C.E.) and the Talmud (500 C.E.). The earliest written record describing the consumption of insects in Israel is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In a book called Berit Damesek, we find the this rule:
And all of the grasshoppers of their kinds shall be brought in fire or water while still alive for this is the law of their creation.
[Damascus Document XII. Locusts become bitter very quickly after they die due to chemical changes that occur in their bodies. In order to avoid this, they must be cooked while still alive. This is probably the reason for this directive. During the Middle Ages, locusts were no longer being consumed in Europe. The tradition has remained in Israel, North Africa and Yemen to this day.
Are Locusts Kosher?
According to the Torah, certain types of locusts are permitted. In Parshat Shemini, the Torah instructs:
Every flying insect that uses four legs for walking shall be avoided by you. The only flying insects with four walking legs that you may eat are those which have knees extending above their feet, [using these longer legs] to hop on the ground. Among these you may only eat members of the red locust family, the yellow locust family, the spotted gray locust family and the white locust family. All other flying insects with four feet [for walking] must be avoided by you.
This is further elaborated in the Talmud, in Tractate Chullin 59a, 65a-66b and Tractate Avodah Zara 37a, the Mishna states in Chullin:
Any kind of grasshopper that has four walking legs, four wings, two jumping legs and whose wings cover the greater part of its body is kosher.
Locusts are a pareve staple. In Chullin 8:1, we learn that locusts are classified like fish. They may be prepared with milk. Like fish, there is no requirement of ritual slaughter for locusts. People were especially thankful to have them during times of famine. When they swarmed, they were caught and preserved so they could be eaten over a long period. After they were captured, their wings were detached, and they were peeled. The locusts were then boiled or pickled in vinegar or preserved in salt. Special barrels called gevonta were used to pickle the locusts. The barrels for salting them were called heftek. It is not enough that the Torah tells us that locusts are kosher. A continuous, living tradition of eating locusts, transmitted from one generation to the next, is required for them to be permitted. This is called mesorah. The long-standing tradition of eating locusts still exists in some Egyptian, Moroccan and Yemenite Jewish communities in Israel. Members of these communities are skilled in identifying which locusts are kosher. The locusts they identified were desert locusts. They have a mark on their chests that looks like the Hebrew letter Chet. Place your arrow on the fourth picture from the left at the top of the page to see it. Even Jews who are not of Yemenite or Moroccan background are permitted to eat these locusts, based on this mesorah.
The blessing over locusts
Which blessing do we say over locusts? In the Mishnah (Berahkos 6:3), we are instructed that:
over soured wine or unripe fallen fruits or over locusts one should say, Blessed are you, G-d, King of the Universe, by whose word all things exist.
Locusts are very nutritious
Locusts are high in protein, iron, zinc, niacin, thiamine, riboflavin, and essential fatty acids. They are low in cholesterol. Vendors in the Ahsa market in eastern Saudi Arabia claim,
that by eating locusts you can cure diabetes, high blood pressure and heart diseases.
People who are allergic to seafood will also be allergic to locusts. This is because the exoskeleton of the locust, like that of shrimp or lobsters, is made of a type of glucose called chitin.
Locusts are good for the environment
Locusts are not only nutritious; they are also helpful in sustaining our environment. It is very efficient to grow locusts for food. These micro-livestock are cold-blooded animals, and do not need to consume food to keep themselves warm. They reproduce quickly in captivity, and take little time to grow into adults. Locusts produce twice as much protein as chickens, and six times as much protein as cows from the same amount of food consumed. In Thailand, locust farms are one of the preferred businesses for women. Their low start up costs, small size, and the negligible amount of waste that they produce make them an excellent opportunity for these women to support their families. Locusts should get the Eco-Kashrut (for protecting the environment) and Hechsher Tzedek (for enabling these women to earn a fair living) seals of approval!
What do locusts taste like?
One intrepid traveler to Thailand reports that dry, seasoned locust tastes a bit like toasted sunflower seeds. Others report a meaty/nutty taste.
Where can you acquire locusts to sample?
There is a laboratory in Israel in which certified Kosher, organic, pesticide-free, restricted range locusts are grown. They are not for sale to the general public. In order to taste them, you have to go to the Mesorah dinner. The Mesorah dinner is a meal organized by Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky to teach about kosher animals, and to transmit the tradition of eating them from one generation to another, in order to preserve their kosher status. These dinners have been held in New York, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem. To participate in one of these dinners, please click here. The only locusts that I could find for sale are not certified kosher. To determine kashrut, you will need to find a knowledgeable Yemenite Jew to check them for you. A really good resource is Congregation Tifereth Yisrael, The Yemenite Synagogue of Manhattan. Their mission is
to preserve the sanctity of the Yemenite laws and customs which have remained unchanged for nearly 2000 years.
The locusts I found are Thai grasshoppers; cooked in lemon grass, lime leaf, galingale (from the ginger family), garlic, salt, and soy sauce. They arrive dehydrated and vacuum packed. You may order them online. Because they are considered a destructive pest for crops, live grasshoppers are not sold to retail customers in the United States. Those of you adventurous enough to cook live locusts will need to catch your own grasshoppers. Desert locusts are nicknamed “the sky prawn”.
Like shellfish, they are caught with nets when they swarm. You may use a butterfly net. If you go early in the morning, they move more slowly, especially after a cool night. Dr. Jason Weintraub, the collections manager of the department of entomology at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, recommends going to Houston Meadow in the Wissahickon Valley to find grasshoppers. There is a path behind the tennis courts at the Houston Recreation Center that leads to the meadow. According to Dr. Weintraub, there are dozens of grasshopper species in this region. Some of these creatures eat toxic or bitter plants whose chemicals protect them from predators. Certain grasshoppers could taste good to humans, and others could cause nausea. Of course, you will need to check with a knowledgeable Yemenite Jew if you have caught the right sort of grasshopper before you eat it!
Recipes from Israel’s plague of 2004
In 2004, a swarm of locusts flew through Eilat. They denuded all the palm trees and ate every flower, stem, leaf, fruit, and seed that they encountered. Recipes for locust dishes were posted on a local website. Here are some adaptations you may try:
Locust Shish Kebab
- Heat some hardwood charcoal in a bar-b-que.
- Thread 12 locusts on a skewer.
- Place the skewers over the hot coals, turning constantly to avoid burning the locusts.
- The locusts are ready when they turn golden brown.
- Remove the head, legs and wings before eating.
Locust Chips (French Fries)
- 12 Locusts
- 2 quarts peanut oil
- Salt and pepper
Boil water in a pot. Heat the peanut oil in a pan over medium-low heat until it reaches 325 degrees F. Blanch the locusts in the hot water, and remove to a plate lined with paper towels to drain. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the locusts to the hot oil, continuously stirring to avoid burning. When the locusts turn a golden brown, transfer to a plate lined with paper towels to absorb the excess oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Remove the head, wings, and legs before eating. Serve immediately. May be served with ketchup.
In Mexico, in the state of Oaxaca, grasshoppers are a popular traditional dish. Following is a locust recipe with the flavors of the New World.
Mexican Locusts (Chapulines)
- 1 lb. fresh locusts
- 4 tablespoons of olive oil
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic
- Chili powder
Cook the locusts in boiling water for 5 minutes. Drain, and remove the wings, legs, and heads. Heat the olive oil in a pan. Add the garlic, and stir until golden. Add the locusts, and fry until crunchy and golden. Sprinkle chili powder to taste. Squeeze fresh lime juice over the locusts. Serve immediately. May be served with rice, or in a taco shell with guacamole.
In the Mexican websites that I visited, grasshoppers and shrimp were interchangeable in the recipes. I have placed my order for dehydrated grasshoppers with Thai spices. When they arrive, I will need to have them examined by someone at Congregation Tifereth Yisrael. If they are kosher, it will be like eating kosher shrimp. Will I dare?