Apparently, there are two types of people in the world: Those who are repulsed by the idea of eating animals like locust, cow udders, piranha, and Asian water buffalo, and those who get really excited about it.
I guess I’m clearly in the latter category, because I haven’t stopped talking about the kosher “Feast of Exotic Curiosities” I attended at The Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh shortly before sukkot. The once-a-year fundraiser was an unforgettable experience.
As an Orthodox Jew who keeps kosher, it’s not often that I get to eat something so dramatically different than anything I’ve ever eaten before. But Rabbi Natan Slifkin, the founder and director of the museum who is popularly known as the “Zoo Rabbi,” has been known to think out of the box.
Slifkin established the “part natural history museum, part zoo" in 2014 to enhance appreciation and understanding of biblical scripture and Jewish tradition via the natural world. With exhibits that include live and taxidermy animals, skeletons, and audio/visual presentations, the museum offers a fascinating and unique educational experience that is as challenging for adults as it is pleasurable for children. Speaking with Slifkin, it’s easy to get wrapped up in his passion for correcting misunderstandings about the animals of Israel and the bible.
“One of my main educational messages is something that is obvious if you think about it, but not if you don’t,” he tells a small group of journalists huddled around him before the dinner. “The animals of the bible are the animals that lived in Israel at the time of the bible” and not those found in other places in the world.
“Scholars living in Europe understood scripture according to their surroundings, so, for example, they interpreted the word “shafan” as a rabbit. But there were no rabbits in Israel during the time of Tanach. The descriptions of the shafan indicate that it was actually a hyrax, like those found in abundance in the area of Ein Gedi.”
Moving on, Rabbi Slifkin points to the large skeleton of a cave bear. “These bears used to live in the northern parts of Israel, but the last one recorded here died 100 years ago, in 1917.” Next, to the birdcage nearby. “Myna birds were first brought to Israel in the 1990’s to be raised in the zoo, but they escaped. Now, they are the most common bird found in Israel.” There’s so much more to see and hear.
Here's me, with one of the zoo exhibits. We didn't eat any snakes at the meal.
But we didn’t come to the museum to learn, we came to eat. While last year, the museum hosted a feast of exotic kosher animals from the bible, this year’s theme was a bit different. “Everything on this year’s menu has been declared treif by at least one rabbi,” Slifkin announced at the beginning of the meal. “However, everything here has also been ruled to be kosher by many rabbis.” With each course, Slifkin spoke at length about each food’s controversial history.
To be clear from the beginning, this was a very fancy meal prepared primarily for the museum’s patrons and others who could afford the hefty price tag. All of the dishes were prepared by world-renown chef Moshe Basson, head of Jerusalem’s famous Eucalyptus restaurant and expert on biblical cuisine. Tables were set exquisitely with candles, centerpieces and a peacock feather on every place setting, and some of Israel’s best red wines were poured freely. Attire was formal, and every aspect of the presentation was top-notch. Among the event's high-profile attendees were Rabbi Tzephania Drori, chief rabbis of Kiryat Shemona, and Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Weisenthal Center. Last year, some of the OU’s leading rabbis attended as well.
We’ll run through the menu items here, and present some of the more interesting background stories in the box below.
FIRST COURSE- APPETIZERS
Handcrafted Foccacia breads with dips: Although we were explicitly warned not to fill up on bread, since there would be so much food.
Smoked Kingklip with Beet Creme and Crispy Lentils: Kingklip is a fish commonly eaten in South Africa, long and eel-like with fins and scales that are very thin and transparent. The Jewish community there has considered the fish kosher for more than 100 years, until a trouble-maker told Israeli rabbis in 2004 that it doesn’t have the scales required by kashrut law. After numerous meetings of top rabbis from both locations, the fish has been declared “kosher but not mehadrin,” a designation whose only significance is political.
Kosher Oysters with Pearls: I was really surprised to think that they had discovered a kosher variety of oyster, but in fact we were served Oyster mushrooms (which apparently taste like oyster) served in a real oyster shell.
Kosher Bacon and Eggs: This kosher bacon was made from a type of seaweed called red dulse. Apparently, it is known in the culinary world that this algae tastes like bacon when it is smoked and fried. From those at our table who had tasted real bacon, responses as to how accurate that is were mixed.
SECOND COURSE- HORS D’OEUVRES
Before the next course was served, a surprise: A single piranha had been imported to Israel that morning for the purpose of our feast. Yes, piranhas are known predators, but they have fins and scales, and are totally kosher. However, the fish was too small to share with everyone, so the decision was made to auction it off. After some spirited bidding, New York investor and philanthropist Harris Bak paid $1500 for the distinction being, most likely, the first Jew in the world to ever eat piranha in an Orthodox setting. He told me later that the fish tasted “pretty good”.
Seven species salad: Nothing controversial here.
Pheasant pastilla with dried fruit and carrot cream: The pasion pheasant found in Asia and Europe is not the Slav mentioned in the Torah, and its roots in the mesorah are slightly unclear. There are sources of well-known rabbis permitting the bird, but contemporary kashrut organizations do not recognize it. The OU is reportedly considering allowing it, but has not yet done so.
Figs stuffed with muscovy duck: Muscovy duck is another “new world” bird with unclear mesorah. Currently, kashrut organizations in the United States do not certify it, but in Israel, all non-hareidi kashrut do permit it, and virtually all duck sold in Israel today is Muscovy. The figs stuffed with meat is one of the top dishes at Chef Basson’s Eucalyptus restaurant, and this duck adaptation was equally magnificent.
Slow cooked udders in almond milk: These cow udders had their milk removed, but were cooked in Almond Milk so that we could enjoy some of their “milk and meat” aspect.
Turkey animelles with lemon and garlic: Its not clear how Turkey, which has no clear mesora, became so universally accepted as a kosher bird. Jews ate turkey for hundreds of years before they were first discussed in the halachic responsa of the 19th century. At that point, rabbis justified their acceptance on the grounds that it would be unacceptable to cast aspersions on the actions of earlier generations. However, it is clear that if turkey was suddenly discovered today, “there is not a kashrut organization in the world that would permit it.” FYI animelles is a fancy culinary term for testicles, but we only Googled that after we noticed that the turkey was softer than we expected.
Guineafowl maklubeh with smoked green wheat: With the flair of a performer, Chef Basson presented the maklubeh, a massive dish of fowl, rice, and vegetables. Guineafowl has been eaten by Yemenite Jews for centuries, but certain European rabbis questioned their halachic status when they were introduced in their communities.
Roasted Asian water buffalo shoulder with herbs: This was the highlight of the night. Four men brought in a gigantic platter with a side of the massive Asian water buffalo in a dramatic presentation. Some identify this animal with the “Coy” mentioned in the Talmud, a kosher animal that has the traits of both domestic and wild animals (behemot and Chayot).
Crispy fried locusts in sugar: Actually, this was the real highlight of the night. What was it like to eat locust? Well, gross. Although if we had known to take off the legs and wings before we ate it, it might have been less gross. Here’s a video of the commotion:
Vegan cheese and figs with honey, Semolina cake from shir hashirim. Yummy Israel-themed desserts by the master chef.
To take home: Kopi Luwak: Kopi Luwak was acknowledged as the most halachically controversial food on menu, and we were sent home with a small jar which we were told to ask our rabbis whether we can eat. Kopi Luwak is the most expensive coffee bean in the world, selling for as much as $700 per kilo. This bean gets its desirable flavor after a civet eats the beans and they pass through its digestive tract. It is said that the civet eats only the choicest beans, and that it’s digestive enzymes enhance the flavor. Kopi Luwak is a particularly interesting challenge to the halachic principle that “any food that comes from a non-kosher animal is not kosher”, and while arguments to permit it were presented, Rabbi Slifkin gave off the impression that he was not comfortable at all endorsing it as kosher.
SO, WHAT WAS SO AMAZING? When I tell people about the meal, people always ask me if any of the animals we ate was incredible, as if there is a hidden kosher treat out there that tastes like magical rainbow manna. Truth is, most of the fowl we ate tasted more or less like chicken, the fish tasted like fish, and the water buffalo tasted pretty similar to beef. That being said, Chef Basson made everything taste amazing, and the night as a whole was one of the most entertaining, fascinating, and delicious culinary experiences I’ve ever had. If you’re the type of person who isn’t repulsed by adventurous eating, I recommend you keep an eye out on Janglo for the next time something like this is done.