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Plague Of Locusts Has Israelis Asking: Are They Kosher For Passover?

Mar 7, 2013
Originally published on March 15, 2013 4:54 pm

A swarm of locusts that has devastated crops in Egypt made its way into neighboring Israel this week. And with Passover just around the corner, many news outlets couldn't resist noting the shades of the biblical tale of Exodus, when the insects were one of 10 plagues that descended upon Pharaoh and his people.

But while Israeli farmers now fret over what the insects might do to their fields, others in Israel have proposed a culinary approach to the infestation: Why not eat the buggers up?

It's a tidy approach, but there's just one catch: The rabbis don't agree on whether the critters are kosher.

Among the chief promoters of locust cuisine is Israeli celebrity chef Moshe Basson, who appeared on a morning news program Wednesday to offer advice on whipping up concoctions with the insects.

"They taste something between sunflower seeds and baby shrimps; they actually don't taste like much," Basson told the U.K.'s The Guardian. "I like them, but they're desired not because they are delicious but because they are rare."

Basson is known for his biblically inspired dishes. A few years ago, his restaurant The Eucalyptus served up fried locusts as dessert in a well-publicized dinner aimed at reviving ancient local kosher food traditions.

Others have also chimed in to promote the palate experimentation for Passover: "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," Allison Kaplan Sommer writes in Haaretz.

Recipe ideas for dishes like honey-spiced locusts soon popped up on blogs. And in an op-ed for The Times of Israel, Rabbi Natan Slifkin, who studies the intersection of Judaism and the animal world, offered an ecologically minded argument for eating the insects:

"Can you imagine what an impact it would make if Jews were known not for exploiting animals in factory-farming and indulging in massive gastronomic excesses, but instead for adopting a more environmentally and animal-friendly approach?"

Still, not everyone is on board the locust culinary train. Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, son of one of Israel's most influential ultra-Orthodox religious leaders, warns that the tasty grasshoppers may not be so kosher after all.

The Old Testament is admittedly fuzzy when it comes to eating locusts. As The Jerusalem Post notes, Leviticus warns that "every swarming thing that swarms on the ground is detestable; it shall not be eaten." But the same book of the Torah, the paper notes, also lists four types of locusts — "red, yellow, spotted gray, and white" — that are OK to eat.

Yemeni Jews have munched on locusts for centuries, so no one in that community disputes that the grasshoppers are kosher for them.

The real question, it seems, is whether they're also kosher for Jews of European descent, known as Ashkenazi, who have no tradition of being able to identify the types of locusts with the biblical stamp of approval. Ashkenazi rabbis are divided.

"Communities with a tradition of eating locusts allow it," Yosef said Wednesday, "but most of the people in Israel don't, and we cannot rely on the marks, even when it's called locust."

It may sound like splitting hairs, but such wrestling with interpretation is a hallmark of Jewish scholarly tradition.

Still, for those who throw their lot with "yeas" on kosher, global cuisines — from The Netherlands to Mexico to Bay Area foodies — offer plenty of inspiration for chowing down on insects, which are a great source of protein.

Or Israelis could simply look to Thailand, where fried grasshoppers are often served as a crunchy treat. According to urban legend, the insects first appeared on Thai dinner plates after a plague of locusts descended on local farms a few decades ago.

Bet the ancient Egyptians wish they'd thought of that first.

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