New York – Ancient ‘Manna’ on Modern Menus


    Grains of Shir-Khesht manna and Hedysarum manna. [Erin Gleeson for The New York Times]New York – AFTER several weeks of wandering the desert after their escape from Egypt, the Israelites were hungry, the Bible says, and started grumbling.

    So God conjured up two things for them to eat. In the evening, there were quails.

    “In the morning,” the Book of Exodus says, “there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew evaporated, behold, on the surface of the wilderness there was a fine flake-like thing, fine as frost on the ground. When the sons of Israel saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ ”

    In ancient Hebrew, “what is it” can be rendered man-hu, a likely derivation of what this food has come to be called, manna.

    The Bible describes it as being “like coriander seed,” and “white, and its taste was like wafers with honey.”

    But as miraculous as its biblical apparition may seem, manna is real and some chefs have been cooking with it.

    The dozens of varieties of what are called mannas have two things in common. They are sweet and, as in the Bible, they appear as if delivered by providence, without cultivation.

    Most of this manna is either dried plant sap extruded from tiny holes chewed out by almost invisible bugs, or a honeydew excreted by bugs that eat the sap.

    Rarer are the mannas not from sap, including Trehala manna, the sweet-tasting cocoon of the Larinus maculates beetle from Turkey; and manna-lichen (Lecanora esculenta), which occasionally dries up and blows around to form semisweet clouds out of which manna settles into drifts from western Greece to the central Asian steppe.

    Mannas form best in extremely dry climates — like the Middle East’s — where sap oozes at night and dries up in the morning. The favored theory on what the Israelites called manna is the sap of a tamarisk tree.

    In Calabria and Sicily, Italian farmers cut the bark of the flowering ash (Fraxinus ornus) to get the dried sap, the only domesticated form of manna. Italian apothecaries used it for centuries as a laxative, and other mannas have been used for medicinal purposes.

    Behroush Sharifi, a New York dealer in rare spices and dried foods from the ancient Silk Road who’s known as the Saffron King, imports two venerable forms of manna from Iran: Hedysarum manna and Shir-Khesht manna.

    Both of them look like what they are: stuff knocked off bushes by the desert gatherers who harvest it. They contain bits of twigs and leaves and who knows what else. The Hedysarum is $22 an ounce, and the Shir-Khesht is $28. (Information is available by writing to [email protected]; Mr. Sharifi plans to open an online store this summer.)

    His roots in the world of manna go back 10 years. Mr. Sharifi, who left Iran as a child, returned for the first time in 2000 when President Clinton lifted the embargo on importing some Iranian food products, which had been in place since the 1979 Islamic revolution. His initial focus was saffron. He then took on other rare Persian products unknown to American cooks.

    While visiting the bazaar in the city of Yazd, Mr. Sharifi came across a seller of manna, a product he had remembered hearing about as a child but hadn’t seen. He began importing it in 2008 and has built a following for it among his chef clients.

    Garrett McMahon, a sous-chef at Perilla in Manhattan, uses Hedysarum manna with sea salt to finish off a foie gras terrine with Marcona almonds, candied kumquats and toasted brioche. “The manna allows us to achieve a sweet, salty balance while maintaining a great crunchy texture,” Mr. McMahon said.

    Paul Liebrandt of Corton in Manhattan used Shir-Khesht manna in a dish of charred Frog Hollow Farm apricots, fresh wasabi and Kindai kampachi. “The texture is unlike any other I’ve experienced — chewy and crunchy at the same time,” Mr. Liebrandt said. “It also makes the food intensely personal, because no two people taste manna the same way. I might taste a haunting minty-ness, while you might detect a whiff of lemon. No other ingredient is like that.”

    Hedysarum manna comes from Hedysarum alhagi, the camel thorn bush. It resembles Grape-Nuts mixed with aquarium sand, and tastes like a combination of maple syrup, brown sugar, blackstrap molasses, honey and nuts.

    Even more complex and subtle is the Shir-Khesht manna from the cotoneaster nummilaria shrub. Shir-khesht looks like broken-up bits of concrete or coral and is whiter than hedysarum manna. It is sweet, with some gumminess that eventually dissolves in the mouth. Shir-khesht’s tongue-cooling effect comes from mannitol, a sugar alcohol in this and many other mannas; the sensation is similar to menthol, without the menthol taste. It has notes of honey and herb, and a faint bit of citrus peel.

    I’ve made a cocktail with it, heating two parts water to one part Shir-Khesht manna, straining it, and adding the syrup to bourbon. As with the raw manna, the drink changes as you sip it. It is sweet, but not overly so. It is cooling, complex and satisfying.

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    1. The “manna” in the midbar tasted like whatever a person wanted, except for 4 things (I think cucumbers, garlic and two others, I’m not sure). Whatever wasn’t gathered up melted and disappeared, except for one small jar that was put away for posterity. It was an entirely miraculous food, but, there will always be those who attribute miracles as natural events somehow.

      • That, plus the manna in the desert was satisfying enough for a person to live on as their daily food. You try to live on the stuff described in this article for more than a couple of days, you’d probably develop diabetes.

        (Me’am Loez, on Parshas Beshalach, has about a dozen proofs that the Torah’s manna isn’t these insect exudations. Your points and mine are among them; I don’t recall the others offhand.)

        • And they would be correct in doing so! What we think of as the “natural order” is also the Will of Hashem, Who re-creates all of existence every moment. It’s just that He usually does so in a way in which His presence is hidden, and where it appears to be a simple series of cause-and-effect relationships.

    2. Very nice, but what does any of this have to do with what Hashem fed us with in the Midbor? Do these things dry up and disappear if left out or produce no waste when eaten?

    3. Whatever these foods are, one thing for sure. They definitely require a hechsher. Obviously the bug-related ones have a technical difficulty in receiving a hechsher. As with all “new” products, we should ask a reliable hechsher authority about them.

      • I am sure that anything prepared by Humans needs a hecsher…

        However….the ….shall we say …by product of bugs might not be any different then bee’s honey…also a by product of bugs!

        • The Torah specifically is matir honey. That doesn’t mean that all bug byproducts are automatically mutar. Research has to be done to decide exactly how the bug makes it and the way it is stored.

          • No research is required. We have very complete descriptions of how honey, honeydew and all the other sweet insect byproducts are made down to the molecular level.

            Here’s the quick version:
            Bees swallow nectar and store it in a part of the digestive system called the “honey stomach”. It is partially digested, expelled from the stomach and re-eaten. The process is repeated until the honey has reached a certain density and quality. Finally the honey is vomited into special cells in the hive and sealed up for later eating.

            Aphids and some of the true bugs (Hemiptera) eat plant sap. Extra sugar is expelled from the digestive tract either in liquid form (honeydew), sticky strands or a hard sugar coating. The latter two are used as protective coatings by the insect. The first is simply deposited.

            For both honey and honeydew the insect eats a high-sugar plant juice, digests it and expels excess sugar.

          • The Torah NEVER makes bee honey matir. The Torah never even mentions bee honey, Dvash al pi Torah is Date Honey. Chazal matirs bee Honey because it is not a product of bees, although R’ Yaakov learns it from the pasuk Vayikra 11:21 that the Torah ONLY made assur the Sheretz itself (Brochos 7b).

        • Bee honey is unique in the world in that the bee uses a catylist to transform the pollen into honey, leaving absolutely no trace of anything originating in the animal within the finished product. This ‘manna’ sounds like a waste product of an insect and therefore not kosher.

          • That’s simply not true.
            1) Honey is not processed pollen. It is processed nectar. Despite what you may have been told it contains saliva, digestive juices and proteins from the bees.

            2) Pollen is stored on the bee’s legs in structures called pollen baskets. It is later mixed with enzymes and fungi or bacterial cultures to make bee bread. There is little or no pollen in honey.

            3) Honeydew and Honey are both plant juices which have entered the insect’s digestive tract. The real difference is that honey is vomited up, regurgitated and re-digested a number of times. Honeydew passes through once under pressure and is processed much less.

            4) You’re not going to get the facts to agree with what you learned in yeshiva on this one. We know infinitely more about this now than our ancestors did two thousand years ago.

            • OK, so poster #15 confused pollen with nectar. But have you got a source for your point #1, that he’s substantively incorrect because honey contains “saliva, digestive juices and proteins from the bees”?

              And re your point 4: the Gemara (Bechoros 7b) actually cites two opinions – one (which poster #15 is referring to) that honey is permitted because it doesn’t contain anything from the bees themselves; and another that it does, but that it’s immaterial, because the Torah specifically permits bee honey. So you needn’t be so supercilious about our knowledge compared to that of our ancestors’.

            • My original response to you and #21 got lost…

              I don’t despise Torah or Torah learning. But when tradition and theology are in conflict with Hashem’s will as clearly displayed in His Creation human opinions must be modified.

              As for a source, the Wikipedia articles on honey and honeydew are good places to start. The Honey Marketing Board has technical articles. My personal source was my wife who has advanced degrees in entomology and agronomy.

            • Even though you may despise yeshivah learning, the Torah (Bible) explicitly permits honey. The science is unnecessary in this case. However, since it has been known since pre-talmudic times (or for your benefit: Greek times) that honey is produced by insects, no parallels may be drawn to permit other substances derived from or by way of insects.

    4. I bet you if Hashem provided this man today, there would be a whole “bug crisis” about whether they’re kosher or not, and how much inspection is needed.

    5. The Ben Ish Hai (Year 1, parasath Mattoth, para. 3) refers to a Middle Eastern delicacy known as ‘Man al-sama’ which, he says falls from heaven with the dew. It was known as ‘manna arabica’ in the West. See also ibn Ezra Exodus 16:13. If the science behind the article is correct, it would cause a revolution even more than the present imbroglio about the worms in fish…

    6. The article asserts, “Italian apothecaries used it for centuries as a laxative…”

      I got it! Let my people go!

      By the way, if Rashi ate fish in Worms, why can’t we eat worms in fish?

    7. The Ibn Ezra says (on the spot) that he has heard of “manna” and one can find it in certain locales. He might have been referring to this stuff….

    8. #16,
      That was very good, it brought a chuckle to my lips.

      Next case, to other posters, you need not go to extreme mental gymnastics to be matir honey. If you really want to get technical, milk is produced by animals and is neither fleischig or treif. Interesting that it’s found in the same posuk as honey, although I was always under the impression that the posuk was talking about date honey.

    9. Rambam, Treatise Concerning the Resurrection of the Dead:
      “…Our efforts, and the efforts of select individuals, are in contrast to the efforts of the masses. For with the masses who are people of the Torah, that which is beloved to them and tasty to their folly is that they should place Torah and rational thinking as two opposite extremes, and will derive everything impossible as distinct from that which is reasonable, and they say that it is a miracle, and they flee from something being in accordance with natural law, whether with something recounted from past events, with something that is in the present, or with something which is said to happen in the future. But we shall endeavor to integrate the Torah with rational thought, leading events according to the natural order wherever possible; only with something that is clarified to be a miracle and cannot be otherwise explained at all will we say that it is a miracle.”

    10. The Torah says specifically that Mom fell each morning with the dew, so it fell from the sky, The Torah says it was shaped like a seed, and Rashi says that it melted and formed rives which the animals drank from and when the nations slaughtered the animals and ate the meat it had the taste of mon . If Mon was kept overnight except on Friday night it became wormy, the righteous had it delivered on their doorstep, others had to go gather it, the righteous ate it as it was and others had to grind it and bake it or cook it to eat it, so obviously none of what you have shown has the qualities of Mon

    11. Some of the statements being parroted are amazingly ignorant. What ever the manna was, its characteristics, as described in the Chumash, are miraculous. The manna itself may have been rather ordinary, but may have seemed miraculous because Klal Yisroel wasn’t used to the midbor.

      Who said there were no plants in the midbar? Are we talking about a desert or wilderness? There is no dew in the desert. It’s too dry. Klal Yisroel was moved from oasis to oasis. Otherwise, where would they get water? Please don’t tell me that all the water was a miracle. Otherwise, why would they complain about bitter water, creating the situation where Moshe had to create water, occasionally?


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