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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

What’s the most radical thing that you have ever eaten? At the Biblical Museum of Natural History, we create annual events in which we serve gourmet exotic dishes of unique halachic and/or zoological interest. Our first event was a Biblical Feast of Birds & Beasts (being repeated in Teaneck later this month), featuring animals and birds that are eaten in the Bible. Our second event was a non-Biblical menu, a Feast of Exotic Curiosities. Our third event, which took place last week, was a different menu again: A Feast of Legends from the Sea.

When one thinks of seafood, what comes to mind is either fish, or treif, or both. But, between myself, award-winning chef Moshe Basson and mashgiach Rav Yonatan Gabbai, we devised a menu of legends from the sea that was much more than just fish, and yet was fully kosher!

The appetizer was fleishig. How can there by a fleishig food from the sea? Well, the Torah says that the Children of Israel were pining for the fish that they ate in Egypt, and also begging for meat. The commentaries explain that God responded by giving them a food that has aspects of both fish and meat: the verse states that God sent “a wind that blew salvim from the sea.” Today, we interpret this as a reference to how quail migrate over the Mediterranean into the Sinai. But in medieval Europe, other explanations of this verse were given by the Rishonim. One was that the quail is a sea-bird, which has a fishy taste to its flesh. Another was that salvim refers to barnacle geese—a type of goose that was believed to be generated from ocean barnacles (and which, in the view of some Rishonim, did not require shechita!). Accordingly, our first legends from the sea were quail wrapped in crispy goose bacon.

For hors d’oeuvres, we capitalized upon two concepts introduced in the Talmud: that non-kosher food is not repulsive, just prohibited; and that for every non-kosher food, there is a kosher equivalent. Based on this, we served kosher versions of oysters, shrimp, squid and Coquilles St. Jacques. The oysters were made from quail eggs, dried in anchovy salt and served in genuine oyster shells. Guests were invited to sprinkle these with powdered oystershell, which is kosher, according to halachic rulings from Rav Shachter and others, since the shell of the oyster is not considered the “flesh” of a non-kosher creature. Thus, the guests were able to eat something that looked like oyster, that had the taste and texture of oyster and that actually had (partial) oyster in it, and yet was not oyster! The squid was made from a fishy concoction formed in a special squid mold that we imported from Japan, to which guests could add powdered nautilus shell, with the nautilus being the only cephalopod to possess an external shell.

The next delicacy was caviar. True caviar, one of the most expensive foods in the world, is the roe of the sturgeon. This is a fish that is popularly believed to be unequivocally treif, but is actually steeped in halachic dispute, with no less an authority than the Noda B’Yehudah insisting that it is kosher. However, since halachic authorities today prohibit sturgeon caviar, we managed to find two kosher substitutes (which are still extraordinarily expensive!)—one from Europe that is created via molecular engineering, and one from a fish called a bowfin, which is very close in taste to sturgeon.

The soup was “A Potage of Predators: Cappuccino Crab Bisque With Piranha & Shark Fin.” Sharks, which lack scales, are not kosher, and thus the “shark” fin was actually that of a kosher fish. But piranhas, contrary to popular belief, are indeed kosher; they possess fins and scales. While the laws of kosher mammals and birds exclude predators, no such principle exists with fish. The problem with serving piranhas is that, outside of the Amazon, they are almost impossible to obtain. We managed to obtain two baby piranhas; one went in the soup, and the other was cooked whole and auctioned off!

The first of the entrees was “Beasts From the Sea: Sea Donkey Without Ox.” The Talmud states that “the donkey of the sea is permitted, the ox of the sea is forbidden.” While historically there were those who believed this to refer to aquatic mammals, it seems that it refers to certain fish that share similarities to mammals. The “ox of the sea” is the oxfish, better known as the manta ray, which possesses appendages that resemble horns; we displayed a manta, but did not serve it. The “donkey of the sea” appears to be a member of the cod family, perhaps the hake, which is kosher and which we served.

Then came the highlight of the evening: swordfish! Swordfish is popularly believed to be non-kosher, due to it lacking scales. However, the Talmud lists swordfish (under an Aramaicized form of the Greek name Xiphias) as a kosher fish, due to its possessing scales when it is young (these are later absorbed into the skin). Jews ate swordfish for many centuries with the approval of major halachic authorities and to the protest of nobody at all. It was only beginning in the 1950s that some people, lacking relevant information, started to fear that swordfish was not kosher and revised the historic tradition. By framing it as an Orthodox vs. Conservative issue, they succeeded in removing it from the Orthodox lists of kosher fish. But the tide has started to shift, with kashrut authorities such as Rav Machpud of Bnei Brak having personally inspected swordfish and attesting it to be kosher.

Yet acquiring swordfish is not at all straightforward. For starters, because an adult swordfish lacks scales, one cannot purchase a swordfish steak, since there is no halachic way to be certain that it is actually from a swordfish. One must purchase a complete swordfish, and they are enormous, rarely available and certainly not cheap! After many months of searching, we finally scored a lucky catch, with a fisherman based out of Ashdod who had caught a six-foot swordfish! The price: three thousand shekels! Chef Basson cooked this leviathan whole, and it was brought it on an enormous platter carried by four men, to the musical accompaniment of Strauss’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra” (better known as the iconic soundtrack from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey). The 80 guests present gasped and cheered, and there was a frenzy of photography!

For dessert, we presented an Ocean Extravaganza. Smoke (from liquid nitrogen) swirled around a table spread with confections, with the centerpiece being a magnificent cake in the form of a giant octopus. Also served were caramelized locusts, the only type of insect listed in the Torah as being kosher. While Jews from Europe forgot which types of locusts are kosher (since there are no locusts in Europe), Jews from Yemen and North African communities all retained the tradition. Crunchy on the outside with a chewy center, locusts are highly nutritious!

The Feast of Legends From the Sea was a unique event in the history of kosher food. Aside from being delicious and entertaining, and being tremendously educational, it also proved that keeping kosher does not mean that one’s culinary pleasure has been limited. The richness of Jewish law and the animal kingdom provides an ocean of opportunity.

Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin, popularly known as the "Zoo Rabbi," is director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History. 

A full volume that was published to accompany the Feast of Legends From the Sea is available from the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh, www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org. The next event, “A Biblical Feast of Birds & Beasts,” is taking place in Teaneck on October 21—for details, see www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/feast.