When we think of traditional Jewish cuisine, what normally comes to mind is gefilte fish and chicken soup. But if we look at the Bible, we see a far broader range of creatures that feature on the menu. Chickens don't appear in the Bible at all - they hadn't yet been brought over from India - but a host of other species are described as being kosher.
The Torah states that for a mammal to be kosher, it must possess split hooves and chew the cud. It presents a list of kosher mammals that fulfil these requirements, which includes not only the familiar domestic species (cattle, sheep and goats) but also wild animals such as gazelle and deer. These are also described in the Book of Kings as having been served at the table of King Solomon.
Venison is a kosher but rare delicacy. When the first Jewish Lord Mayor of London, David Salomons, was elected in 1855, and was awarded the traditional royal gift of venison from the Queen's herd of deer, he sent a shochet so that he would be able to eat it.
Kosher venison was available in England in the late 19th and early 20th century, when a group of shochtim were given an annual opportunity to catch and slaughter deer on the estate of the Rothschild family. Today, however, kosher venison is no longer available in the UK, because of agricultural regulations that deer must be shot in the open field, not brought into an abattoir.
Among the many types of kosher birds, probably the most famous biblical kosher bird is that eaten by the Children of Israel in the wilderness. They had been complaining that they wanted meat, to which God replied that He would give them meat until it would "come out of their noses". Moses expresses astonishment that it would be possible to provide for so many people and God responded with quail.
If there were a plague of locusts, at least there would be available something to eat
These birds migrate in the tens of millions from Europe to Africa, flying over the Mediterranean and arriving at the Sinai desert. However, they are rather plump, with short wings, and do not excel at flying. By the time they arrive in the Sinai, they are exhausted and can be easily captured. There is not much meat to be had on a single quail but they are delicious, and when there are millions of them, it adds up.
It is not only species of beasts and birds that can be eaten. Of the 30 million or so species of insects, the vast majority are non-kosher, but the Torah lists certain locusts as being kosher. While no reason is given for this, we can observe that if there were a plague of locusts, which wipe out all the crops, at least there would be something available to eat- and locusts are actually extremely nutritious.
While eating insects may sound primitive, in fact it may be the future for mankind. As the world's population increases, raising cattle becomes less and less viable, and many food scientists are looking to insects as being a far more efficient form of protein.
Not all locusts are kosher; only the ones named in the Torah may be eaten. Jewish communities from Morocco, Yemen and Algeria retained the tradition as to which species are being described. With foods such as kitniot on Pesach, which Ashkenazim have a tradition not to consume, they cannot simply choose to adopt a Sephardic tradition to eat them. However, with locusts, there is no European tradition not to eat them; rather, there were simply no locusts in Europe, since locusts only live in tropical climates.
In the absence of any tradition either way, many rabbinic authorities rule that European Jews may adopt the traditions of North African Jews regarding which locusts are kosher.
All the aforementioned edible creatures are unfortunately not usually available in kosher supermarkets. But there is a forthcoming opportunity to taste them, at the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh, which presents the animal world of the Torah in a spectacular array of live and taxidermied exhibits.
On October 13, the museum is hosting an "Exotic Biblical Dinner". The gourmet experience, prepared by internationally-famous "biblical chef" Moshe Basson, will include quail, venison, and other unusual species, with each dish being introduced with a presentation about the significance of that creature in the Torah. Dessert will, of course, be crispy caramel-dipped locusts. However, an option of chocolates (in the shape of locusts) will be provided for those who suffer from locust intolerance.