What do Asian water buffalo, kingklip fish, guinea fowl, pheasant and Muscovy duck have in common? None are mentioned in the Bible, all have been the subject of controversies regarding their kosher status, and they each were served to a roomful of mostly Orthodox Jews last week at the Biblical Museum of Natural History’s 16-course “Feast of Exotic Curiosities.”
The museum in Beit Shemesh is a unique institution that is part zoo, part natural history museum and part Torah education center. It showcases the mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects of scripture and related zoological topics from the Talmud.
One of the goals of the museum’s founder, Rabbi Natan Slifkin, is to correct misconceptions about the animals of the Bible and the Land of Israel. On a tour of the museum ahead of the meal, for instance, he pointed out that a shafan is a hyrax, not a rabbit, and a tzvi is a gazelle, not a deer.
“We teach about the relationship between Judaism and the animal kingdom and draw inspiration from the animal world,” Slifkin said. “The main idea is learning about the animal world of the Bible and its significance. The animals of the Bible are the animals of the Land of Israel. That means no polar bears, penguins or kangaroos.”
To that end, last year, Slifkin hosted a feast at his museum featuring animals from the Bible, including doves, quails, sheep and deer. To follow up on that meal, Slifkin decided this year’s feast would feature animals that are not in the Bible but have gastronomical and Jewish significance.
“Everything on the menu has been declared treif [unkosher] by at least one rabbi, but then again, everything has also been declared kosher by many rabbis,” Slifkin said to start the meal, in which every item served was prefaced by a scholarly explanation of its Jewish and zoological significance.
The first course after a basket of bread that went untouched in order to save stomach space was the smoked kingklip. Slifkin told the crowd that the kingklip became caught in a net of kosher controversy.
It looks like an eel, which is not kosher. For fish to be kosher, both fins and scales are essential. The kingklip’s scales are hard to find. Hence, when Jews first encountered the fish when they settled in South Africa, they declared it unkosher.
But rabbis eventually found the scales under a membrane, and it became the main course on holiday menus for South African Jews. After decades of South African Jews happily eating the fish, someone Slifkin described as a troublemaker came to Israel and persuaded top rabbis to declare that the kingklip is not kosher.
“The saga of the kingklip is a tragedy that highlights the flawed practice of rabbinic authority,” Slifkin told the diners, and he encouraged them to eat the fish.
The next two courses on the menu were interestingly called “kosher oysters with pearls” and “fried kosher bacon and eggs.” Both ended up being something much less controversial for a kosher meal.
The “oysters” were oyster mushrooms, whose look and taste are considered similar to the unkosher shellfish. They were served on real oyster shells, which made a nice keepsake from the meal.
The “bacon” was a red marine alga called dulse, which grows extraordinarily quickly, is packed full of protein and, when cooked, tastes extraordinarily like bacon. The few attendees at the meal who had experienced real bacon confirmed its similarity.
The only item served at the meal that was not given to everyone, because of its small size, was a piranha. Many in the crowd were surprised that a piranha is kosher, but it has fins and scales, and, unlike with birds, Jewish law does not prohibit carnivorous fish.
The fish was auctioned off, and after a bidding war, was won for $1,500 by New York financial analyst Harris Bak. While Bak said eating the fish was “a once-ina-lifetime opportunity,” his wife, Lolly, later admitted the piranha “tasted like any other fried fish.”
Because a bird is kosher only if a chain of tradition (mesora) exists confirming that it has always been kosher, Jewish communities around the world have had their own customs regarding whether local birds are permitted to be eaten. For two decades, Bar-Ilan University professor Ari Zivotofsky and his former classmate, Jerusalem dentist Ari Greenspan, have been on a mission to interview holders of mesora and keep as many birds as possible kosher for future generations.
Zivotofsky told the crowd how he and Greenspan helped preserve the tradition of the pheasant, which was thought to have been lost. Venerated American rabbi Moshe Feinstein declared it unkosher before Yemenite-Israeli religious law expert Rabbi Yosef Kafah passed on to Zivotofsky and Greenspan the pheasant’s kosher tradition that he knew from his teachers.
Award-winning chef Moshe Basson of Jerusalem’s biblical-themed Eucalyptus restaurant, who prepared the meal, said helping keep the pheasant kosher was one of the highlights of his life. He served the stately bird for the first time at a mesora meal organized by the two Aris at his restaurant opposite the Old City walls seven years ago.
Mesora meals to carry on more traditions have since been held in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. At this meal, the pheasants were served in a pastilla (meat pie), with dried fruit and carrot cream.
While, at Eucalyptus, pastillas and figs are normally stuffed with chicken, at the feast, the figs were filled with Muscovy duck, which has been declared forbidden by kosher certification organizations in America but kosher by leading Israeli rabbis, including Kiryat Shmona Chief Rabbi Tzfaniah Drori, who made a point of traveling to Beit Shemesh for the meal to provide it with his endorsement.
Simon Wiesenthal Center director Rabbi Marvin Hier, who has won an Oscar, also attended the meal to add his authority. Other courses served that raised eyebrows were a salad that included all the seven species of the Bible and a cow udder.
The udder had its milk removed so diners would not eat meat and milk together, but it was cooked in almond milk to give a taste of the mixture that is forbidden by Jewish law. Slifkin told the crowd that there could be a problem of that combination looking bad (mar’it ayin), but that since all attendees knew they were at a meal in which everything was kosher, serving the udders in almond milk was acceptable.
Makluba is one of the top items on the Eucalyptus menu, with chicken, rice and vegetables served with a ceremony led by the chef at the restaurant. At the feast, the chicken was replaced by guinea fowl, a bird whose tradition was passed on by Kafah after other rabbis disavowed it. The gastronomic highlight of the meal was a massive Asian water buffalo carried to the dining hall with great fanfare by Basson along with others. Basson carved the animal for all to see, oddly over a python cage at the museum.
The water buffalo has been identified as what the Mishna calls a “koy,” which is neither a wild nor a domesticated animal. Buffalo meat is not available in Israel, but the animals are raised for their dairy products at Moshav Bitzaron in the South.
Arguably the tastiest item on the menu was followed by what was unquestionably the least palatable, fried locusts. Unlike last year, when they were served in chocolate to make them easier to consume, this time all they had on them was sugar. Diners were told to remove their wings and legs, but it didn’t help.
The only insects that are kosher proved why the tradition of eating them comes only from select communities. Perhaps this is one animal for which it would be no tragedy if its mesora was lost forever.