ONE DAY AT A TIME
By Gil Marks
The parsha of Beshalach focuses on the initial weeks following the Exodus from Egypt. On the 30th day after leaving the state of bondage, at the twelfth stop, the Israelites depleted the provisions that they had brought with them. Being a wilderness, there was, of course, little additional food to be had. In response to the congregation's murmuring, "Then said the Lord to Moses: 'Behold, I will make bread rain down from the sky' (Exodus 16:4)." The following morning, a date that tradition ascribed as Lag B'Omer and a Sunday, the people awoke (16:14-15), "And when the layer of dew was evaporated, behold upon the surface of the wilderness a fine, scale-like thing, like the fine frost on the ground. And when the children of Israel saw it, they said to one another: 'Mawn hu ("what is it")?' For they knew not what it was. And Moses said to them: 'It is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat.'" The text then related a description of the heavenly bread, "And the house of Israel called its name mawn (manna); and it was like zera gad (coriander seed), white; and its taste was like wafers with honey (Exodus 16:31)."
The Talmud (Yoma 75a) asked,
"How can the Torah compare the color of the manna to that of the
coriander seed, when the coriander seed is not white?
Rav Assi said: 'The verse means that the manna was round like a
coriander seed and white like a pearl.'"
Indeed, besides this parsha, in regards to a later incident occurring
after the people left the Sinai region and headed further into the
wilderness, the Torah rendered another description of the manna's appearance
and flavor. The mixed multitude
that had come along with the Israelites complained about the diet, spurring
discontent. The Torah then
noted (Numbers 11:7-8), "Now the manna was like zera gad (coriander seed), and its appearance as the appearance of bedolach. The people went about and gathered it, and ground it in
mills, or crush it in a mortar, and simmered it in pots, and made cakes of
it; and the taste of it was as the taste of a cake baked with oil."
The word bedolach occurred in only one other place in the Torah (Genesis 2:12), designating the richness of the land of Havilah, watered by the rivers of Eden, "And the gold of that land is good; there is bedolach and onyx stone." According to Ibn Ezra bedolach is a pearl, while Rashi posits that is a crystal. Another explanation is bdellium, an aromatic gum resin exuded from a tree. In any case, the use of bedolach by the second instance of manna, reflects that episode of complaining was viewed differently than the first. In Beshalach, the Israelites had suddenly run out of food. In the second instance, however, the people were complaining that they were bored with the manna, so God responded that its taste was like a reflection of Eden and, being free and delicious, reflected the state of mankind in Eden. This is in conjunction with the use in the second description of its taste as "oil," for olive oil is a sign of blessing and, as discussed in the blessing of Asher in the parsha of Vayechi, also associated with a taste of Eden.
Rashi (Numbers 11:7) explained, "Behold what my children are complaining about; and the manna is really outstanding -- it is like coriander seed." Manna and the coriander seed were both considered something very special.
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) -- also variously called Chinese parsley, Mexican parsley, and cilantro -- is a venerable relative of parsley and carrots native to the Levant. Every part of the coriander plant, each contributing a different flavor, is edible -- the dark green leaves, thin off-white roots, pale pink flowers, and, especially relevant to the ancient world, the seeds. Its English name was derived from the Greek koris (bedbug), either referring to the tiny leg-like sprouts on the husk or to the malodorous smell of immature seeds. Unripe seeds are also extremely bitter. When the seeds ripen, the plants are harvested with the morning dew to prevent the seedpods from splitting. (That is interesting in light of the manna's connection with the morning and dew.) The seeds are then dried and, similar to grain, threshed. The ridged, globular tan seeds are brittle and easy to grind into an aromatic powder possessing a nutty-peppery-orange flavor quite different from the musty-peppery flavor of the leaves.
In the ancient Middle East, the coriander seed was far from being merely another spice, as it followed only salt as the single most important and widespread seasoning. The earliest known examples of coriander seeds, dating to prehistoric times, were discovered among human artifacts in the Nahal Hemat cave in Israel. Coriander was among the ingredients in the world's first recorded recipes, found on 4000-year-old Sumerian tablets.
Documents discussing the cultivation of coriander were among those in the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (7th century BCE). Coriander was to ancient Israel and Egypt what pepper is to the French or paprika to Hungarians. Unlike the then very expensive imported Oriental spices, such as cloves and cinnamon, coriander was grown locally in the Levant and Egypt and was accessible to every level of society. The seeds were used in both savory and sweet dishes as well as added to many varieties of wine and beer. In addition, coriander was valued for its medicinal properties and its essential oil has long been considered a digestive stimulant.
Hippocrates, the Greek "father of medicine" (c. 400 BCE), recommended coriander in the treatment of various ailments. Not surprisingly, it was included in the Ebers papyrus (1550 BCE), a listing of Egyptian medicinal plants. In Egypt, coriander was also used in perfume and as an aphrodisiac. Egypt had a long history with this plant; the Roman naturalist Pliny praised Egyptian coriander for its quality. Indeed the common presence of coriander seeds in Egyptian tombs, including that of Tutankhamen (c. 2500 BCE), reflects a mythological significance.
Today the leaf of the coriander plant, commonly called cilantro, which has an appearance similar to flat-leaf parsley, is reputed to be the world's most widely used herb, essential in Asian and Latin cooking. The seeds, on the other hand, are now rarely seen. To be sure, coriander is still utilized in cooking -- Middle Easterners add it to meatballs and stews, Moroccans to roast lamb and vegetables, Indians to curry powder, and Germans to sausages and pickling spices. Yet the fruit of the coriander plant has become simply one of a host of spices and one not particularly well known or recognizable by the vast majority of Westerners. In addition, today most people obtain spices in the ground form and the seeds are rarely if at ever actually seen. In biblical times, on the contrary, the ubiquitous coriander seeds were homegrown or purchased whole, then ground just before using. Thus while most people in the modern world would have difficulty identifying a coriander seed, it was probably one of the few, if not the only spice that nearly everyone in ancient Israel -- rich or poor, young or old, male or female -- would instantly recognize and appreciate.
A coriander seed is about 3 mm in diameter. Thus it required a lot of manna to constitute the omer (2.2 liters or 9.4 cups) designated to feed each person daily. The text (Exodus 16:36) actually made a point of stating the amount of an omer, "Now an omer is the tenth (part) of an ephah." The term omer (a "heap" in Hebrew) is packed with significance, even lending its name to an offering in the Temple, the only one designated after the measurement rather than the objective or occasion. On the second day of Passover, an omer of green barley was brought as an offering in the Temple, permitting the consumption of the new grain crop. So important was this commandment that the cutting of the grain was even performed when the 16th of Nissan fell on Shabbat. In addition, two loaves of bread were brought seven weeks later, a period of daily counting of the omer, ending with Shavuot, a lengthy annual reminder of the manna tied into our holidays and agricultural year.
Tradition saw a direct connection between the omer of the Temple to the omer of the manna. According to Jewish lore, the manna ceased falling upon the death of Moses on the 7th of Adar and the people were able to continue eating leftover manna saved from the last day's collection for 39 days until crossing the Jordan River on the 16th of Nissan. Then, in order to eat the new crop of grain, they had to first bring the first Omer offering. The Midrash related, "God said to Moses: 'In the wilderness, I provided a daily omer of manna for every Jew. As payment, let the Jews bring me an Omer offering every year of the 16th of Nissan.'" The offering and counting of the Omer in the Temple made manifest the lessons of the omer of the manna in the daily life of the Jews. Indeed, the manna's taste of honey was certainly an inference to "a land flowing with milk and honey."
Much of the manna's symbolism derives from its appearance -- small, round, and white. The manna's description imparts that food should have a pleasing appearance, smell, and flavor, underscored by the link to the coriander seed. In Jewish tradition, a round shape, such as eggs and lentils, is a symbol of the life cycle. The Talmud (Yoma 75a) explained, "The Torah described the manna as white because it whitens the sins of Israel." White is also a sign of purity. The reliance on the regular arrival, with the exception of Shabbat, of the manna constantly reminded the people of God.
The ancient Hebrew name for coriander was gad from gadad, meaning to "cut" or "gather together." Interestingly, Gad is also the name of one of the sons of Jacob, one of a group necessary for establishing the nation of Israel. Rashi (Genesis 30:11) explained Leah's reason for the name of Zilpah's first son "bawgad," as "Good fortune has come." Thus Gad is identified with prosperity, increase, and unexpected acquisition. In addition, great physical strength was the outstanding characteristic of the tribe of Gad, which led to the tribe leading the Jews into battle. Because of Gad's size, he was one of the brother's that Joseph did not present before Pharaoh, who would want to draft him into the army (Exodus 47:2). So the reference to zera gad reflected that manna led to strong bodies. The Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 1:5) certainly made a connection between zera gad and the tribe of Gad, explaining that the name of Jacob's seventh son was a portent of the manna "with which God fed them and which was like coriander." The special talent of Gad was the ability to organize groups (troops), taking individuals and making them into an army (Genesis 49:19).
This helps to answer the obvious question as to why was the manna was so small and not one large item. An object that seems insignificant, such as a single person or a grain of manna, when conjoined with others, even under the less than ideal conditions of the wilderness, proves essential and substantial. Water is similar. A scarcity of water, as the Jews learned during their initial stay in the wilderness, can prove dangerous. Yet when drops of water are massed together, they create a force to be reckon with, as the Egyptian army discovered by the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 14:28). Therefore the need to collect numerous small balls of manna echoed the nation building process. The exiles from Egypt needed the various lessons of the manna to help transform them from a band of deprived and debilitated slaves into a spiritual people capable of receiving the Torah in another couple of weeks. This process corresponds to the metamorphosis of the coriander seed, from bitter and foul smelling to pleasing and fragrant.
Here are a few traditional recipes
flavored with coriander.
(About 2 cups)
There are many versions of this Yemenite fiery green chili paste. Z'chug is fiery and, therefore, is often served with crushed tomatoes or diluted with a little chilbeh or tahina to soften its potency. For shatta, a red version of z'chug, use red chilies. Traditionally, the chilies are pounded with garlic in a mortar or on a flat stone, then the spices are mixed in. A blender makes the process much easier. Add a little z'chug to stews, salads, and meat, poultry, and fish sauces or serve with such traditional dishes as chilbeh and miloach.
Puree together all the ingredients to produce a paste. Store, covered, in the refrigerator for several months.
Substitute 2 dried red chilies
and 2 tablespoons cayenne pepper for the fresh chilies.
Berbere, the Amharic word for
ground dried red chilies, also refers to a spice mixture used to flavor
Ethiopian stews called wots. It
reflects the Arabic and Indian influences on Ethiopian cookery.
Cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice add a sweet counterbalance
to the fire of the chilies and pepper.
(About ¾ cup)
Some versions of this Egyptian spice mixture contain pepper and thyme. It is added to lamb stews or mixed with olive oil and used as a bread spread.
In a dry medium skillet over
medium-high heat, stir the nuts and sesame seeds until golden brown but not
burnt (about 4 minutes). Let
cool. Add the coriander and
cumin, grind, then stir in the salt. Store
in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
(About ½ cup)
1. If using whole chilies, stir in a dry skillet over medium heat until darkened, then cool, remove, discard the seeds, and grind. If using cayenne, combine with all the ingredients except garlic and stir the spices in a dry skillet over medium heat until they feel warm but are not burnt. Let cool.
2. Toast the peppercorns, cardamom, coriander, and fenugreek in a dry skillet over medium heat for 3 minutes.
In a spice grinder or blender, process the chilies, seeds, and spices
until smooth. Cover and store
in the refrigerator.
For a paste, add about 1/3 cup
Quamam (a milder Ethiopian spice
mixture): Omit the chilies and fenugreek and add a pinch of turmeric. Quamam is usually added near the end of cooking.
NOTE - Whole seeds are relatively
mild; ground coriander has a much more pronounced flavor.
Toasting or exposing the seeds to acid (as in a brine) brings out the
flavor. Since heat brings out
coriander's attributes, it is used in long cooking foods, such as roasts, or
those cooked over a high heat, such as grilled meats.
Do not substitute coriander seeds for the leaves.
About 1 cup
Arguably no group loves walnuts more than Georgians who add them to almost any dish. This ardor manifests itself in dozens of walnut sauces, the original concept adapted from Persian cuisine, which are served with almost everything. The most versatile of these sauces is bazha. Typical of Georgia, this uncooked sauce is slightly tart as sweeteners are not used in cooking. The thickness of bazha varies according to the nature of the dish: a thicker sauce for pkhali (salads); a thinner sauce for poultry and fish.
Using a mortar and pestle or in a
food processor, grind the walnuts, onion, garlic, and salt into a paste. Stir in the vinegar, cilantro, coriander, cayenne, and
fenugreek. Add enough water to
make a sauce with the consistency of heavy cream.
Let stand at room temperature for at least 1 hour.
(The sauce thickens as it stands.)
Cover and refrigerate overnight or up to 3 days.
About 12 patties
Syrians tend to prefer their pumpkin pancakes spicy, while Sephardim from Turkey and Greece generally favor them slightly sweet. In either case, these colorful pancakes are both traditional for Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, and Hanukkah as well as make a tasty side dish for any meal.
1. Soak the bulgur in warm water for 15 minutes. Drain.
2. Transfer the bulgur to a food processor with the remaining ingredients except the oil and puree. If the mixture into too thin, add a little more flour. Shape into patties about 2-inches long, 1-inch wide, and ½-inch thick.
Heat ¼ inch oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
Fry the patties, turning once, until golden brown on both sides,
about 2 minutes per side. Serve
warm or at room temperature.
HINT - To cook fresh pumpkin, cut it into eighths, place in a large pot of lightly salted water, cover, and simmer over low heat until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain, cut off the peel, and mash. Gently press in a strainer to remove the excess liquid.
Fritadas de Calabaza (Sephardic
Pumpkin Patties): This batter will be looser than the bulgur version, and is
dropped from a spoon. Omit the
bulgur, ½ cup water, onion, garlic, coriander, pepper, allspice, cumin, and
cayenne. Add 3 large eggs and 2
to 8 tablespoons granulated or brown sugar.
If desired, also add 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, ½ teaspoon ground
nutmeg, and a pinch of ground ginger.
Yatkeen bi Seniyeh (Syrian Baked Pumpkin Casserole): Spread the pumpkin
mixture into an oiled 9-inch-square baking pan.
Cut into diamonds or 1½-inch squares.
Drizzle with ¼ cup vegetable oil.
Bake in a 400-degree oven until golden brown.
6 to 8 servings
The combination of coriander, caraway, chilies, and garlic constitute the predominant Tunisian spice mixture, tabil (a word for "coriander" in Arabic). In this dish, herbs and the relish add extra layers of flavor. Fawwar is commonly served with buttermilk, which helps to counteract the fire of the chilies.
1. Place the scallions, parsley, fennel, and celery leaves in the top of a couscousiere or a steamer over boiling water and steam for 30 minutes. Let cool, then squeeze out the moisture.
2. Heat the oil in a large skillet or saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until soft and translucent, 5 to 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic.
3. Add the tomato paste and stir until slightly darkened. Stir in the bell peppers, chilies, paprika, pepper flakes, salt, caraway, coriander, and pepper. Add the water, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the bell pepper slices and reserve.
Pour the spice mixture and herbs over the couscous and toss to coat. Spoon onto a serving platter and arrange the bell pepper
slices over top. Serve warm
accompanied with harissa (chili
paste) and/or falfal bil labid
(cucumber and pepper relish).
6 to 8 servings
Although Westerners are most familiar with the chickpea puree called hummus, Middle Easterners have long enjoyed a variety of mashed legume dishes, such as this one made from lentils.
1. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft and translucent, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the cumin, coriander, and cloves and stir for 1 minute.
2. Add the lentils and water. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, stirring frequently, until very tender and most of the liquid has evaporated, about 50 minutes for the brown lentils; about 35 minutes for the red lentils.
3. Increase the heat to medium-high and stir, mashing the lentils (red lentils tend to fall apart during cooking), until the liquid evaporates, about 3 minutes. Season with the salt and pepper. Let cool. If desired, stir in the tahina. Store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Serve with crackers, bread, or vegetable crudités.
Gil Marks is the author of the James Beard Award finalist The World of Jewish Cooking, The World of Jewish Entertaining, and The World of Jewish Desserts. Send comments and requests to email@example.com.