News of a swarm of desert locusts having reached southern Israel from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula might cause one’s mind to be engulfed by Biblical imagery of plague and apocalypse. But while it’s certainly no joking matter for Israel’s farmers, it’s not all wrath upon the human race, since these crop munching critters are also good human fodder.
Locusts are impressively high in fatty acids and minerals, with the dry weight of an adult desert locust containing up to 62% protein, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization website, making them more nutritious than cattle.
But wait, they’re insects, they can’t be kosher! Or can they?
Actually the locust is considered the only insect to be both kosher and halal. While the Torah (Leviticus 11:22) lists four types of locusts – red, yellow, spotted gray, and white - as kosher, relying on size and color classifications still makes it pretty hard to identify which ones are good-to-eat in reality. The desert locust or Schistocerca gregaria is generally considered a safe contestant, even though it will change size and color throughout its life cycle.
Mizrahi Jewish communities from North Africa and Yemen have kept alive the tradition of identifying and eating locusts, therefore preserving the insect’s kosher status. But for the Ashkenazim it’s again harder to identity let alone recall a palette for the intimidating looking beasties.
“There's no question that originally all Jews knew which were kosher and which not,” Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky, a senior science lecturer at Bar-Ilan University who occasionally lectures on exotic kosher topics, tells The Jerusalem Post. “But over the years a lack of exposure to locusts led the Ashkenazim to lose the tradition of knowing which are kosher, while the Jews in the Mediterranean region preserved the tradition and continued to eat them, including in Israel. Whether today Ashkenazim may also eat them is debated by contemporary rabbis.”
Given the ambiguity in Leviticus - “Every swarming thing that swarms on the ground is detestable; it shall not be eaten” – it’s easy to see how these meaty air swarming fellows can slip quietly through the categorical gaps of dietary laws. Even John the Baptist might have turned desert locusts into dessert locusts by eating them with “wild honey” (Matthew 3:4). Well, this might have actually been "locust bean pods and wild honey" misinterpreted, but we like to think John had an adventurous palette during his time in the wilderness.
And there is no excuse for not knowing how to cook locusts, since there are locust recipes from Cambodia, Mexico, South Africa, Cambodia, Uganda, and the Philippines listed on the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s website. They’re good pickled, dried, smoked, boiled, roasted, barbecue grilled, fried, stir fried and any other way you can conceive to cook them.
Great, an impressively exotic Passover hors d'oeuvre perhaps. So how do you actually catch and kill them, preferably as humanely as possible?
“No shechita; kill them any way you want,” says Rabbi Zivotofsky. “Often they’re killed in boiling water, in the stove, or the freezer. Traditionally they were caught, or more accurately rounded up when they were stationary on the ground in the cool desert night. Those who are used to eating them think they taste really good.”
So get out your fishing and butterfly nets!
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