When news broke of locusts swarming over Egypt, farmers trembled in their boots. Locusts can cause millions of dollars of damage to crops as they chomp through fields. In Israel, pesticide experts went on high alert and eventually were deployed.
But when Jerusalem chef Moshe Basson heard about the locusts, he thought about two things: Schnitzel, and social justice. Schnitzel, because that’s his favorite way of eating locusts. A light dusting of bread crumbs, fried up in olive oil, served with a touch of salt.
And social justice?
“Locusts eat the rich peoples’ food, and poor people eat the locusts, and they get an excellent source of protein for free,” explained Basson, an award-winning chef who owns the Eucalyptus Restaurant in Jerusalem that specializes in local heritage and biblical foods.
Despite many clients clambering for a taste of the crunchy pest, you won’t find locusts on the menu at Eucalyptus. That’s because the locusts exist in a kosher grey area. Previously, Shas spiritual leader and former Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has ruled that the locusts, part of the Acrididae family - that includes grasshoppers - are kosher for everyone who has a tradition of eating them. That includes Yemenite Jews, who used to eat them skewered on shish kabobs and baked in the oven with a light sprinkling of salt.
Because there is no record of the kashrut for locusts in religious texts, their status is unclear, according to Yosef. Basson was born in Iraq, but that doesn’t stop him from frying up locusts for dozens of curious clientele and foreign journalists. “The whole restaurant is about local, traditional, biblical food,” he said.
The current swarm of locusts first appeared near Cairo on March 2. After massing near the border, the locusts descended on Israel on March 6, and the Israeli Agricultural Ministry took aggressive steps to stop the swarm from continuing northward. A few locusts have been reported in northern Israel and Tel Aviv. One of Basson’s workers found a locust near his home in the Old City’s Armenian Quarter, but he was too afraid of it to bring it to work.
Which is too bad, since Basson is running low on locusts. After the pesticide spray, it’s been hard for him to get fresh locusts. The ones he has now were collected a few days ago by farmers in Ramat Hanegev and brought exclusively to Basson. But after spending three days in boxes in Basson’s kitchen, they’ve lost most of their meat.
When he drops the live ones in boiling oil, they make a hissing sound, just like shrimps, as the air escapes from their hard shells. Their brown bodies turn a brilliant red as they cook. On Sunday, Basson decided to make both savory and sweet locusts. In one dish, he sautés deep fried locusts with a yellow sauce made from pickled lemon and saffron, mixed with a fresh roasted red pepper salsa and freshly blended almond milk.
In the next dish, he created a candied locust caramel. After removing the head and the wings (the parts of the locust with no nutritional value that only serve to get stuck in your throat, Basson explained), Basson poured boiling caramel over the bodies and detached legs of the locusts, creating an amber-colored locust candy that inspired references to edible Jurassic Park lollipops. After breaking up the candy, he stuck it in a mound of coconut whipped cream decorated with beet leaves.
The truth is, locusts don’t really taste like anything except crunchy air. Both dishes I tried tasted exactly like the sauces Basson used to cook them. As I teased the squeamish photographer with locust legs poking out of my mouth, I couldn’t help but think, if Israel has to experience one of the Ten Plagues before Passover this year, I’m sure glad we didn’t end up with lice.