The Etrog: The Father Of All Lemons

Ronit Treatman

Have you ever felt an uncontrollable urge to cut the etrog in half?  Many of us wonder why we bring this strange fruit into our sukkah.  Is it not just an overpriced lemon?  What does it symbolize?  How is it a part of the Jewish tradition?  Most importantly, can we eat it?

What is an etrog?

An etrog is a large, fragrant, elongated golden lemon-like fruit. It is the yellow citron, or Citrus medica, a member of the citron family.  This citron is the largest of the citrus family, between four to six inches long. Molecular studies have demonstrated that the etrog is one of the oldest types of citrus in existence. It, along with the mandarin, papeda, and pummelo, is the forefather of all the other types of cultivated citrus plants.  The etrog tree self-pollinates since it is not receptive to fertilization by pollen from other plants.  Consequently, it is considered the male parent of its hybrid offspring, or the father of all lemons.

The history of the etrog

Etrogs originated in Southeast Asia about 4000 years ago.  They still grow wild in India in the valleys of the lower slopes of the Himalaya Mountains.  These citrons were the first type of citrus to be cultivated.  In antiquity, the etrog was called the Persian or Median Apple.  Later it was called the Citrus Apple.  Originally, citrons were grown as ornamental plants.  The fruit was used to perfume clothes, as a moth repellent, and its peel was used as a spice for food.  The etrog was also used medicinally as a cure for seasickness, an antidote to poison, and as an antibiotic.  Cyrus the Great brought the citron from Persia to Babylon when he conquered it in 539 BCE.  Alexander the Great disseminated it around the Mediterranean region in 300 BCE.  In Biblical times, the Jews cultivated the etrog in the Land of Israel for the observance of Sukkot.  The etrog was also used as a symbol of resistance.  In the first century BCE, Alexander Yanai, the last Maccabee high priest and king of Judea, publicly engaged in a Sadducee water ritual (Succah 4:9) in the Temple of Jerusalem.  Infuriated, the Pharisees flung etrogs at him in protest.  During the time of the first Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire (66-70 CE), etrogs were cast in Jewish coins instead of Emperor Nero.  These “Masada coins” were minted in bronze.  They have an inscription in Paleo-Hebrew that says “For the Redemption of Zion.”   When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE and the Jews were expelled, the etrog went with them to Yemen, Morocco, Syria, Greece, Lebanon, and Southern Italy.  The Romans loved citrons, and cultivated them throughout Italy.  Some of the earliest greenhouses, built from mica, were invented to protect etrog trees in Northern Italy.

Why do we bring the etrog into the Sukkah?

In Leviticus 23:40 we are commanded,

And you shall take of yourselves on the first day the fruit of a goodly tree, a palm branch, the myrtle branch, and the willow of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.

 This has been understood by some Rabbis to mean that the tree must be good and the fruit must be good.  By “good,” they meant that the tree must be beautiful year round, and the fruit must be attractive and delicious.  The etrog tree meets these requirements.  It is an evergreen tree, so its fragrant leaves are on the tree all year.  Its fruit is lovely, with a pleasing perfume and flavor.  The tree itself is edible. If you cut a branch in half and taste its interior, it has the same flavor as the albedo (white part) of the inside of the etrog.  Because of its shape, the etrog symbolizes our heart.  Because it tastes and smells good, the etrog represents Jews who perform good deeds and learn Torah.  This is an ideal we may all strive to achieve.

Elements of an etrog that is kosher for ritual use

Purity:  For a citron to be considered kosher it must be pure.  It may not be grafted or bred with other citrus species.  An etrog tree must be grown on its own roots, from seeds or cuttings.  All seeds and cuttings must come from etrog trees which have never been grafted.

Size:  The etrog needs to be a minimum size of a hen’s egg to be picked.  The average size of a chicken’s egg is 2 ¼ inches long and 1-¾ inches in diameter at its widest part.  The etrog should weigh a minimum of 2.08 ounces.  

Shape:  If it is completely round, it is not permissible for ritual use.  

Texture:  Its skin must be bumpy and it must have a thick rind.  

Color:  The etrog should be ripening from green to yellow when it is picked.  Its skin must be unblemished.  

Segments:  An etrog should have few pulp segments, with very little juice.  Its seeds should point vertically when it is sliced in half.  

Peduncle:  Its stalk, which connects it to the tree, must curve inward toward the fruit.  A small piece of the stalk needs to remain connected to the etrog for it to be kosher for ritual use.

Pitam:  The other end of the etrog sometimes has a protuberance called a Pitam.  This is the stigma of the etrog flower, where pollen grains are received during fertilization.  An etrog with an undamaged Pitam is especially valued.  Some etrogs mature and shed the Pitam.  They are kosher as well.  If someone damages the etrog by breaking the Pitam, then that etrog is not kosher for ritual use.    

Five types of citron are traditional for ritual use during Sukkot.  The Yemenite Citron has been in use since the time of the First Temple (around 586 BCE).  It is pulpless, and has no juice.  The Greek Citron from Corfu has been used since the Second Temple era (516 BCE – 70 CE).  In 1850, this citron was planted near Jaffah by the halutzim.  This was a project funded by Sir Moses Montefiore.  The Diamante Citron from Italy was extensively used by Jews in medieval times.  The Moroccan Citron is a sweet citron.  After the destruction of the Second Temple the Jews who were exiled to Morocco adopted it.  It has and hourglass shape called a “gartel.”  The Balady Citron is native to Israel.  “Balady” is Arabic for “native.”  These etrogs are still cultivated in the Galilee and near Jerusalem.  Balady Citrons do not fall off the tree if not picked.  They continue growing for years until the branches of the tree break under their weight.

Today, etrog orchards require strict rabbinic supervision for the etrogs to be permissible for ritual use.  The mashgichim ensure that the trees are not grafted.  The leaves and thorns are carefully cut away from the fruit so it is not blemished.  The branches are curved downward to encourage the formation of flame shaped etrogs.  

Etrogs do not produce much juice.  Fortunately, most of what we taste comes from our sense of smell.  Thanks to the etrog’s abundant fragrance, what we cook with it will be flavorful.  It is possible to prepare the etrog in many interesting ways.

Etrog recipes

Succade

This is from the oldest recorded etrog recipe, from the 1400s.  The word “succade” is said to come from “sukkot.”  The etrog was cut in half and its pulp was removed.  It was immersed in seawater for 40 days.  Every two weeks, the seawater was changed.  Once the peel was cured, the salt was removed by soaking the rind in boiling water.  The peel was then candied by soaking in a sugar solution.  The candied peel was sun-dried or sealed in jars to be used later.  This peel has a unique flavor, different from that of other citrus plants.  Succade can be eaten out of hand, but is more commonly added to desserts.  It is sometimes coated in chocolate to be consumed as confectionery.  For some families, it is customary to eat succade during the Tu Bishvat Seder.

1 Etrog

3 cups sugar

3 cups water

Dice the etrog into ½ inch cubes.

Place the etrog pieces into a saucepan.  Add 3 cups of water and 3 cups of sugar.  Heat over a medium flame until the mixture boils.

Lower the temperature to a simmer, and allow to cook for 45 minutes.

Turn off the flame, and allow the etrog to cool in the pot for 30 minutes.

Strain the fruit.  Save the syrup.  Mix it with hot water to create an aromatic Korean tea called Yujacha.

Spread the diced etrog over a cookie sheet.  Allow it to dry for 12 hours.

Store in jar, tightly sealed.

If you would like to purchase candied etrog from Italy please go to this link: http://www.markethallfoods.com…  

Etrogcello

Etrogcello is a citron liqueur like the Limoncello from Southern Italy.  It is generally consumed after dinner, as a digestive.  It should be served cold, in a small, chilled ceramic glass.

5 etrogs

1 bottle of vodka

3 1/2 cups water

2-½ cups sugar

Pour the vodka into a glass pitcher.  Cut the peels of the etrogs into long strips.  Add to the pitcher.  Seal the pitcher with plastic wrap, and let stand at room temperature for four days.

Pour the water into a saucepan and bring to a boil.  Dissolve the sugar in the boiling water.  Stir over medium heat for about 5 minutes.  Allow the mixture to cool completely.  Add the sugar syrup to the vodka-etrog mixture.  Cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for 12 hours.  Remove the etrog peel from the pitcher.  Pour the liquid into glass bottles.  Seal tightly, and refrigerate until very cold.  Some people like to keep their etrogcello in the freezer.  

Savory preserved etrogs

Preserved etrogs are delicious in Moroccan tagines, on pizza, paired with olives in roasted chicken, in whole grain salads, and on fish.  

Fresh etrogs

Sea salt

Peppercorns

Cinnamon stick

Bay leaf

Coriander seeds

Fennel seeds

Extra virgin olive oil

Cut the etrogs into quarters, leaving them attached at the base.  

Mix all the spices together.

Pack the cuts in the etrogs with the salt mixture.

Put 2 tablespoons of the salt mixture at the bottom of a sterilized glass jar.

Layer the etrogs, sprinkling some of the spice mixture between each layer.

Press the etrogs firmly into the jar.

Pour olive oil into the jar, completely covering the etrogs.

Seal the jar tightly.

Leave at room temperature.

The etrogs will be ready after about a month.  They may be refrigerated for up to two years.

If you have never eaten an etrog before, get adventurous this Sukkot.  Once the eight days are over, give in to your most primal urges and grab your sharpest knife!  Admire your etrog’s beautiful golden color.  Hold it up to your nose and inhale its aroma.  Feel the bumpy skin against your cheek.  Slice your etrog in half.  You will see that most of its interior is a thick, white rind.  Lick the pith.  You may be bracing yourself for the bitterness that you are used to in the rind of a lemon or orange.  The etrog’s albedo will surprise you with its pleasant flavor.  Notice that the etrog has lots of seeds and very little juice.  Bite into the etrog’s pulp and taste its unique citrus extract.  You will be savoring a fruit that has remained unchanged for 4000 years!  Try one or more of the above recipes.  They all preserve the etrog for use throughout the year, infusing our meals with its special taste and aroma.  Thanks to the strict kosher rules against grafting and hybridization, you will be eating the only Jewish heirloom fruit!

Image of First Revolt quarter shekel coin depicting an etrog courtesy of The Jewish-American Hall of Fame.

Do You Dare Eat A Locust?

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Ronit Treatman

When Abraham and Sarah embarked on their journey from Ur to Canaan, what snacks did they bring along? It is safe to imagine that Sarah packed some roasted, ground locusts in a leather bag. Locust powder was the ancient energy food of the Near East. This non-perishable food was taken on long trips by caravan traders. Entomophagy (eating insects) has persisted in the Middle East and Africa to this day. Locusts are the only insects permitted for kosher consumption in the Torah. The tradition of eating locusts remains in the Yemenite Jewish community. If you are brave and adventurous enough, it is possible to reach back to the origins of our Jewish tradition, and taste the original protein energy food.  

What are locusts?

For the past 5,000 years, the desert locust has swarmed through Africa and the Middle East. Locusts are short-horned grasshoppers of the family Acrididae. They breed quickly and grow into nymphs. They keep growing until they become adults. If conditions are right, adult grasshoppers transform themselves into locusts. This occurs if it is warm and rainy. The grasshoppers reproduce at a rate that is too great for them to be sustained by the vegetation where they live. If these grasshoppers feel too many other grasshoppers brush up against them, then their serotonin level changes, causing them to swarm and migrate to a different place with more food. It is at this swarming phase that grasshoppers change into locusts.  As they migrate, the locusts eat all the plant life that they encounter along the way. Swarms of locusts are huge, and some have been estimated to have 250 billion creatures. Locusts can fly up to 125 miles a day, at a maximum speed of about 50 miles per hour, up to a height of 6,500 feet above sea level. Each locust eats about two grams of plants daily, an amount equal to the their body mass.

An ancient culinary tradition

 According to Dr. Zohar Amar, the head of the Land of Israel studies at Bar-Ilan University, locusts were a common food during the period of the Mishnah (200 C.E.) and the Talmud (500 C.E.). The earliest written record describing the consumption of insects in Israel is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In a book called Berit Damesek, we find the this rule: 

And all of the grasshoppers of their kinds shall be brought in fire or water while still alive for this is the law of their creation.

[Damascus Document XII. Locusts become bitter very quickly after they die due to chemical changes that occur in their bodies. In order to avoid this, they must be cooked while still alive. This is probably the reason for this directive. During the Middle Ages, locusts were no longer being consumed in Europe. The tradition has remained in Israel, North Africa and Yemen to this day.

Are Locusts Kosher?

According to the Torah, certain types of locusts are permitted. In Parshat Shemini, the Torah instructs: 

Every flying insect that uses four legs for walking shall be avoided by you. The only flying insects with four walking legs that you may eat are those which have knees extending above their feet, [using these longer legs] to hop on the ground. Among these you may only eat members of the red locust family, the yellow locust family, the spotted gray locust family and the white locust family. All other flying insects with four feet [for walking] must be avoided by you. 

This is further elaborated in the Talmud, in Tractate Chullin 59a, 65a-66b and Tractate Avodah Zara 37a, the Mishna states in Chullin: 

Any kind of grasshopper that has four walking legs, four wings, two jumping legs and whose wings cover the greater part of its body is kosher.

Locusts are a pareve staple. In Chullin 8:1, we learn that locusts are classified like fish. They may be prepared with milk. Like fish, there is no requirement of ritual slaughter for locusts. People were especially thankful to have them during times of famine. When they swarmed, they were caught and preserved so they could be eaten over a long period. After they were captured, their wings were detached, and they were peeled. The locusts were then boiled or pickled in vinegar or preserved in salt. Special barrels called gevonta were used to pickle the locusts. The barrels for salting them were called heftek. It is not enough that the Torah tells us that locusts are kosher. A continuous, living tradition of eating locusts, transmitted from one generation to the next, is required for them to be permitted. This is called mesorah. The long-standing tradition of eating locusts still exists in some Egyptian, Moroccan and Yemenite Jewish communities in Israel. Members of these communities are skilled in identifying which locusts are kosher. The locusts they identified were desert locusts. They have a mark on their chests that looks like the Hebrew letter Chet. Place your arrow on the fourth picture from the left at the top of the page to see it. Even Jews who are not of Yemenite or Moroccan background are permitted to eat these locusts, based on this mesorah.

The blessing over locusts

Which blessing do we say over locusts? In the Mishnah (Berahkos 6:3), we are instructed that:

over soured wine or unripe fallen fruits or over locusts one should say,  Blessed are you, G-d, King of the Universe, by whose word all things  exist.

Locusts are very nutritious 

Locusts are high in protein, iron, zinc, niacin, thiamine, riboflavin, and essential fatty acids. They are low in cholesterol. Vendors in the Ahsa market in eastern Saudi Arabia claim, 

that by eating locusts you can cure diabetes, high blood pressure and heart diseases.

Allergy information

People who are allergic to seafood will also be allergic to locusts. This is because the exoskeleton of the locust, like that of shrimp or lobsters, is made of a type of glucose called chitin.

Locusts are good for the environment

Locusts are not only nutritious; they are also helpful in sustaining our environment. It is very efficient to grow locusts for food. These micro-livestock are cold-blooded animals, and do not need to consume food to keep themselves warm. They reproduce quickly in captivity, and take little time to grow into adults. Locusts produce twice as much protein as chickens, and six times as much protein as cows from the same amount of food consumed. In Thailand, locust farms are one of the preferred businesses for women. Their low start up costs, small size, and the negligible amount of waste that they produce make them an excellent opportunity for these women to support their families. Locusts should get the Eco-Kashrut (for protecting the environment) and Hechsher Tzedek (for enabling these women to earn a fair living) seals of approval!

What do locusts taste like?

One intrepid traveler to Thailand reports that dry, seasoned locust tastes a bit like toasted sunflower seeds. Others report a meaty/nutty taste.

Where can you acquire locusts to sample?

There is a laboratory in Israel in which certified Kosher, organic, pesticide-free, restricted range locusts are grown. They are not for sale to the general public. In order to taste them, you have to go to the Mesorah dinner. The Mesorah dinner is a meal organized by Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky to teach about kosher animals, and to transmit the tradition of eating them from one generation to another, in order to preserve their kosher status. These dinners have been held in New York, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem. To participate in one of these dinners, please  click here. The only locusts that I could find for sale are not certified kosher. To determine kashrut, you will need to find a knowledgeable Yemenite Jew to check them for you. A really good resource is Congregation Tifereth Yisrael, The Yemenite Synagogue of Manhattan. Their mission is

to preserve the sanctity of the Yemenite laws and customs which have remained unchanged for nearly 2000 years.

The locusts I found are Thai grasshoppers; cooked in lemon grass, lime leaf, galingale (from the ginger family), garlic, salt, and soy sauce. They arrive dehydrated and vacuum packed. You may order them online. Because they are considered a destructive pest for crops, live grasshoppers are not sold to retail customers in the United States. Those of you adventurous enough to cook live locusts will need to catch your own grasshoppers. Desert locusts are nicknamed "the sky prawn". 

Like shellfish, they are caught with nets when they swarm. You may use a butterfly net. If you go early in the morning, they move more slowly, especially after a cool night. Dr. Jason Weintraub, the collections manager of the department of entomology at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, recommends going to Houston Meadow in the Wissahickon Valley to find grasshoppers. There is a path behind the tennis courts at the Houston Recreation Center that leads to the meadow.   According to Dr. Weintraub, there are dozens of grasshopper species in this region. Some of these creatures eat toxic or bitter plants whose chemicals protect them from predators. Certain grasshoppers could taste good to humans, and others could cause nausea. Of course, you will need to check with a knowledgeable Yemenite Jew if you have caught the right sort of grasshopper before you eat it!

Recipes from Israel's plague of 2004

In 2004, a swarm of locusts flew through Eilat. They denuded all the palm trees and ate every flower, stem, leaf, fruit, and seed that they encountered. Recipes for locust dishes were posted on a local website. Here are some adaptations you may try:

Locust Shish Kebab

  • Heat some hardwood charcoal in a bar-b-que.
  • Thread 12 locusts on a skewer.
  • Place the skewers over the hot coals, turning constantly to avoid burning the locusts.
  • The locusts are ready when they turn golden brown.
  • Remove the head, legs and wings before eating.

Locust Chips (French Fries)

Ingredients:

  • 12 Locusts
  • 2 quarts peanut oil
  • Salt and pepper

Directions:

Boil water in a pot. Heat the peanut oil in a pan over medium-low heat until it reaches 325 degrees F. Blanch the locusts in the hot water, and remove to a plate lined with paper towels to drain. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the locusts to the hot oil, continuously stirring to avoid burning. When the locusts turn a golden brown, transfer to a plate lined with paper towels to absorb the excess oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Remove the head, wings, and legs before eating. Serve immediately. May be served with ketchup.

In Mexico, in the state of Oaxaca, grasshoppers are a popular traditional dish. Following is a locust recipe with the flavors of the New World.

Mexican Locusts (Chapulines)

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. fresh locusts
  • 4 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • Chili powder
  • Lime

Cook the locusts in boiling water for 5 minutes. Drain, and remove the wings, legs, and heads. Heat the olive oil in a pan. Add the garlic, and stir until golden. Add the locusts, and fry until crunchy and golden. Sprinkle chili powder to taste. Squeeze fresh lime juice over the locusts. Serve immediately. May be served with rice, or in a taco shell with guacamole.

In the Mexican websites that I visited, grasshoppers and shrimp were interchangeable in the recipes. I have placed my order for dehydrated grasshoppers with Thai spices. When they arrive, I will need to have them examined by someone at Congregation Tifereth Yisrael. If they are kosher, it will be like eating kosher shrimp. Will I dare?

Zahav: A Golden Culinary Adventure!

Zahav Restaurant— Ronit Treatman

How can I pay a five star price to eat some hummus?” I asked myself when friends invited me to join them at Zahav, a posh new Israeli restaurant in Society Hill. After all, I can eat Israeli food for free every time I have dinner at my parents’ home! One of our companions had never tried Israeli food, however, so I decided to join them.

Entering the large, airy restaurant was like stepping into the Levant.

 

There were posters of Israeli markets on the wall and intricately designed metal Moroccan lamps. The expertly trained bilingual (Hebrew and English) wait staff greeted us warmly. An attractive crowd of people was enjoying drinks and conversation while sitting at the well stocked bar, which contained some very interesting wines from Israel, Lebanon and Morocco.

Our table was right in front of the tabun, or wood-fired brick oven. Chef Solomonov was baking Lafah, an Iraqi flatbread. On the menu are two choices of prix fixe dinners. The first one is called Ta’yim (delicious in Hebrew) and the second is Mesibah (which means party). For the uninitiated, this is the best way to sample an Israeli menu. We ordered the Mesibah. Our meal began with an assortment of eight different Israeli salads. Everything was fresh and meticulously prepared. These were crunchy, colorful vegetable combinations, each seasoned differently. Especially good were the Moroccan carrot salad and the Israeli vegetable salad. Perfectly seasoned, creamy hummus and finger-singeing lafah, straight out of the tabun, arrived at our table as well. A plate of Israeli pickles and olives was also brought out.

Mezze, or appetizers, were served next. This was an opportunity to explore the diversity of cultures that make up modern Israel. We began in Cyprus, with grilled Haloumi cheese. This sheep’s milk cheese was grilled over hardwood charcoal on a grill next to the tabun. Haloumi does not melt when grilled; it arrived in crispy cubes served with dates and pine nuts. Next, we went to Turkey, and tried the feta, ricotta, and olive borekas, or turnovers. From the Mediterranean, we sampled fried cauliflower with a labaneh (sheep’s milk yogurt) and chive dip. Egypt brought us kibbeh, a deep fried bulgur wheat and lamb croquette, and stuffed grape leaves.

Chef Solomonov pays homage to his Bukharian heritage when cooking the whole roasted lamb shoulder, our main course. Bukhara is a city on the Silk Road, in modern day Uzbekistan. It is famous for its pomegranates and black walnuts, which traditionally were used for both dyeing silk and cooking. Zahav’s lamb is cooked in a pomegranate sauce with chickpeas. It melted in our mouths, and the flavor was deliciously unique. I highly recommend reserving this dish in advance, as it sells out early.

For a glorious ending, Zahav brought out a sampling of all its desserts. From Italy, we tried a chocolate-almond semifreddo (half cold) ice cream cake. Cashew baklava brought us the flavors of the Ottoman Empire as this phyllo dough, nut, and honey concoction was perfected in the Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman sultans for four hundred years. Basboosa, a semolina cake soaked in orange water and honey syrup, represented the Eastern Mediterranean; it was served with peanuts and labaneh. A pistachio cake was served with one of the most exotic ingredients in the restaurant, frozen salep, made from the ground tubers of an orchid. A new twist on a Persian favorite is the halvah mousse, made with sesame seeds and honey. In order to be able to heave ourselves off our chairs, we needed to drink some of Zahav’s deliciously sweet fresh mint tea.

Zahav provides a fair value for the excellence of the food, the ambience, and the quality of the service. Israelis – whether Ashkenazi, Sephardi, or a combination – will find that the food at Zahav is definitely not your mother’s cooking! For those who have never sampled Israeli food before, this is a polite, civilized sort of introduction, where you delicately put your hummus on some lafah with a knife. It is not a wiping the hummus off the plate with your pita kind of place! I need to go back soon!

  • Address: 237 Saint James Place, Philadelphia, PA 19106-3936
  • Hours: Sunday – Thursday: 5:00pm – 10:00pm, Friday & Saturday:
    5:00pm – 11:00pm
  • Website: http://www.zahavrestaurant.com
  • Email: [email protected]
  • Phone: (215) 625-8800
  • Kosher: No