By Megan Goldin
NEOT KEDUMIM, Israel, July 22 (Reuters) - From the tempting apple of the Garden of Eden to the unleavened bread of the Israelite exodus from Egypt, the Bible has given researchers much food for thought.
Tova Dickstein, a researcher at Neot Kedumim, a 625 acre (250 hectare) park in central Israel that has been planted with herbs, crops and trees that covered the land more than 2,000 years ago, says ancient dishes can be found in biblical texts.
She has recreated biblical recipes by referring to the Bible, the Mishna -- a religious Jewish text from shortly after the time of Jesus -- a 2,800-year-old Mesopotamian cookbook and a recipe book by Roman gastronomist Apicius.
"Food was life and life revolved around food," she said.
Among the recipes Dickstein has rediscovered is a honey-dipped pancake called Ashishim made from crushed red lentils and sesame seeds. She believes Ashishim were eaten in King Solomon's court and are referred to in the Song of Songs.
Dickstein found a detailed description of the ingredients and cooking method for Ashishim in the Jerusalem Talmud, a Jewish text dating from around the fourth century, and together with Neot Kedumim's chef whisked up the biblical dessert.
"It's tremendously moving when you realise you have cooked a dish they ate thousands of years ago," said the chef, Nadav Granot.
The Ashishim are made by cooking 200 grams (7 ounces or 1.75 cups) of red lentils in a skillet, crushing them, adding 100 grams (3.5 ounces or 7/8 of a cup) each of flour and sesame seeds and two eggs and deep frying the mixture. A syrup made from honey is then poured over the cooked pancakes.
"It's a different taste from what we are used to," Dickstein said. "By tasting the food they ate and smelling the cooking aromas they smelt we can connect to the past".
LAND OF MILK AND HONEY
The food eaten by biblical characters ranging from Moses to Jesus was very different from the produce laid out today at Jerusalem's bustling Mahane Yehuda fruit and vegetable market or grown on the trees and in the fields of Israeli kibbutzim.
"Try to imagine a world without tomatoes, without eggplants, without zucchini, without rice, without corn, without oranges," Dickstein said. "Most of the ingredients in today's Mediterranean kitchen did not exist in those days."
Neot Kedumim's fields are planted with the seven species that grew in the Holy Land during the biblical period and constituted the greater part of the local inhabitants' diet: figs, dates, olives, grapes, wheat, barley and pomegranates.
Aside from ancient texts, much of the knowledge about food in biblical times is derived from archeological digs in the Holy Land where animal bones and dried-up seeds give experts information on the diet and lifestyle of the locals.
"People did not eat a lot of meat because they did not have large herds grazing lands," Dickstein said.
The staple foods were wheat and barley, lentils, beans, cheese and fruit. Watered-down wine was drunk liberally even at breakfast by farmers who ate bread, olives, vinegar and cheese. Dinner was lentils, cooked vegetables and bread.
"They ate twice a day. One meal in the middle of the work day and the main meal in the early evening," Dickstein said.
Using a text in the Mishna which details the food a wife should prepare for her husband every day, Dickstein calculated the calorie consumption during the biblical period was around 1,800 to 2,000 calories a day, about what it is today in the developed world.
A staple in the biblical pantry was fish sauce, which was used to season everything from barley to cooked vegetables.
But she acknowledges that with no information available on the palates of biblical people, it is impossible to reproduce ancient recipes precisely.
"They may have liked the food sweeter or saltier than us," Dickstein said.
Jews, who were forbidden by religious law from eating meat with milk, would make cheeses using the sap derived from fig leaves rather than animal enzymes as was done by many of the other peoples in the area at the time.
Making bread would take at least four hours, as the wheat or barley granules needed to be pounded into flour, the dough raised using a crude sourdough starter rather than yeast and the mixture baked in a fireplace.
Cooking food from the Bible is more than just an epicurean adventure, said Dickstein who is doing her doctorate on the subject. It is also a novel way to capture the imaginations of secular Israeli youths who feel little affinity for the Bible.
"Today people don't feel very close to the Bible. It's a period they don't understand. The language is difficult and they are taught from a religious point of view," Dickstein said.