Is a biblical food the next foodie fad? This chef thinks so.
By MIKAELA LEFRAK | Special to The Washington Post | Published: August 10, 2018
Last year, as Todd Gray and his wife, Ellen Kassoff, prepared to open their 165-seat, Mediterranean-inspired restaurant at the Museum of the Bible, they faced a culinary conundrum. The name they had settled on for the eatery was Manna, a reference to the food God sent down to the Israelites after their escape from Egypt in the Bible. But if the restaurant was to be called Manna, they wanted to be able to serve it to their guests. “Oh my gosh,” Gray recalls thinking. “Where are we going to get manna?”
Answering that question depends on how you define manna, which could be its own concentration in biblical studies and ethnobotany. Even in the book of Exodus, the Israelites didn’t know what it was at first. The word derives from the ancient Hebrew phrase “man-hu,” which can be translated as a question: “What is it?”
As the story goes, the Israelites awoke one morning during their wanderings to find “thin flakes like frost on the ground.” It was “white like coriander seed” and tasted like “wafers made with honey.” Some biblical scholars and scientists believe that manna was a real food, though there’s disagreement on which one.
“There’s a lot of theories out there,” says Susan Masten, the Museum of the Bible’s curator of antiquities, who has studied biblical plants extensively. One of the oldest references she has found is from a monastery in the Sinai region dating to the 3rd or 4th century. The monks used the term to describe a sweet resin that appears on certain shrubs in the Middle East, such as camel’s thorn and tamarisk. Insects secrete the resin after they consume and digest plant sap.
Others believe manna refers to dried plant sap, or a type of mushroom with psychedelic properties. The Koran makes reference to the story of manna, and a hadith -- a collection of sayings from the prophet Muhammad -- refers to truffles as a type of manna.
“It’s very difficult to research things that fall from heaven,” says Lytton John Musselman, a botany professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, who has written a book on biblical plants. He’s even heard some people claim manna is a type of lichen, though he doesn’t put much stock in that theory. (“The taste and flavors are enough to gag a maggot,” he says.)
Gray was familiar with the resin version of manna, which he tasted for the first time not long before he named the restaurant. It comes in semi-translucent clumps that look almost exactly like Grape-Nuts and has a flavor profile comparable to molasses, caramel or honey. It crunches, like cereal, but dissolves quickly in your mouth.
A handful of other American chefs have cooked with manna, but now Gray envisions it becoming the next big foodie trend, like Himalayan sea salt or black truffles. He wants you to put it on your roast chicken, to dust it on your fish kebab after taking it off the grill, and to use it like sprinkles on vanilla ice cream.
Just a couple of obstacles stand in his way: For one, many Americans think manna is a fictional crop. For another, the real thing is nearly impossible to get in the United States - thanks to political tensions with a country halfway around the world.
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When it comes to interpreting the Bible, Gray is far from fundamentalist; he identifies as a “lapsed Catholic,” and his wife is Jewish. But the couple, who also own the upscale New American restaurant Equinox a few blocks from the White House in Washington, want to use their new restaurant to connect people to history through food.
He had gotten his first taste of manna from an Iranian named Behroush Sharifi. The Manhattan-based Saffron King, as he is known, makes his living selling imported Iranian spices to top chefs in Washington, New York, New Orleans and other American culinary hubs. Gray remembers buying an ounce or two of manna from him for about $35 and falling in love with its sweet flavor and mystical name.
Growing up in Iran, Sharifi saw manna doled out as a cure for upset stomachs and other common ailments. “I remember it tasting delicious,” he told me by phone. He sells two kinds of Persian manna: Taranjebin, which tastes like molasses or caramel, and Shir-Khesht, a whiter variety with a more elusive flavor. “No two people agree on what it tastes like,” he explained. Both varieties are a form of resin.
“Man” is an Arabic term for “plant lice,” and varieties of sweet resins have been sold in Middle Eastern markets for centuries. Gray recalls coming across it last year in an Israeli spice shop, where the owner marketed it as a coffee sweetener.
Austrian physician John Martin Honigberger wrote about finding imported Persian manna in a Lahore, Pakistan, market in his 1852 book on Middle Eastern medicine and botany, “Thirty Five Years in the East.” The Shir-Khesht manna he saw was “very clean and pure, of a sweet odor, and agreeable taste,” he wrote, and “much esteemed by the natives.” Musselman of ODU has seen manna on the shelves of a popular candy store in Sulaymaniyah, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Still, manna is not a mass-marketed product in the Middle East, probably because of the labor-intensive harvesting process. Harvesters must cut a bush’s branches and wait for the resin to appear overnight and harden in the morning sun. Then they shake or scrape it off the plant by hand and pick out impurities like leaves and stems.
A decade ago, when trade between Iran and the United States was more open than it is currently, Sharifi started selling varieties of imported manna to a handful of American chefs. Wylie Dufresne, a James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef in New York, experimented with it on foie gras. Paul Liebrandt, a New York chef who has two Michelin stars to his name, tried infusing manna into green tomato consomme as well as folding it into savory meringues.
“I was very taken with the historical aspect of it,” says Liebrandt, who bought manna from both Sharifi and another Iranian spice seller who has since gone out of business. “We enjoyed it, but it wasn’t something customers were running around flapping their hands about.” After a few experiments with manna, he stopped using it.
Because there hasn’t been much of an American market for it, the product hasn’t caught on with spice importers. None of the chefs I spoke to who had purchased manna from Sharifi knew of other U.S.-based spice vendors who could sell them more.
Meanwhile, Sharifi says his business is perpetually on the verge of collapse due to the fragile trade relationship between the United States and Iran. In fact, he spent most of our phone conversation railing against the Trump administration’s recent round of sanctions on Iranian products (“they’re ruining my life, those sons of [expletive]”).
Last November, Gray bought out much of Sharifi’s remaining manna: He paid $325 for a one-pound bag. He uses his dwindling supply sparingly, sprinkling it on dishes for the museum’s VIP visitors and futzing with it in his home kitchen. He’d love to serve it to all museum guests, but he doesn’t know whether Sharifi will have access to more.
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For now, at least, Gray has been developing a Plan B: mixtures of his own creation that can approximate the taste of Sharifi’s manna. After Manna the restaurant had closed for the day recently, he let me try some Persian manna, as well as two versions of his blends.
The first was a mix of bee pollen, puffed rice, rose petal sugar and smoked Maldon salt, served sprinkled on a salted caramel chocolate tart. It tasted flowery and sweet, but with a chalkier consistency than real manna. The second blend -- fennel pollen, sesame, sumac -- brought a satisfying manna-like crunch to a halibut, bell pepper and red onion skewer. It tasted more savory and complex.
When I asked Gray if he could really describe his two concoctions as manna, he said yes. In his eyes, the distinction is comparable to the difference between champagne, which must be from a certain region in France, and other sparkling wines. Moreover, it’s impossible to be completely sure what the Bible was referring to in the first place.
Not so to Sharifi. In his mind, there’s only traditional manna. Still, he was pleased to hear that his product had inspired Gray to experiment. “Todd’s got a great palate,” he told me. “It sounds like an interesting exercise.”
Gray dreams of one day refining his personal version of manna into a marketable product that capitalizes on both its mystical name and the real-world health benefits of bee pollen, such as its antioxidant properties. He’s begun sourcing bee pollen from Maryland apiaries and testing his blends on dishes for some guests at the museum.
“Isn’t it amazing?” Gray asked as he chewed a final bite of manna-covered chocolate tart. “If the pope comes, I want to be able to give him manna.”