Ancient Manna on Modern Menus
By DAVID ARNOLD
AFTER several weeks of wandering the desert after their escape from Egypt, the Israelites were hungry, the Bible says, and started grumbling.
So God conjured up two things for them to eat. In the evening, there were quails.
“In the morning,” the Book of Exodus says, “there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew evaporated, behold, on the surface of the wilderness there was a fine flake-like thing, fine as frost on the ground. When the sons of Israel saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ ”
In ancient Hebrew, “what is it” can be rendered man-hu, a likely derivation of what this food has come to be called, manna.
The Bible describes it as being “like coriander seed,” and “white, and its taste was like wafers with honey.”
But as miraculous as its biblical apparition may seem, manna is real and some chefs have been cooking with it.
The dozens of varieties of what are called mannas have two things in common. They are sweet and, as in the Bible, they appear as if delivered by providence, without cultivation.
Most of this manna is either dried plant sap extruded from tiny holes chewed out by almost invisible bugs, or a honeydew excreted by bugs that eat the sap.
Rarer are the mannas not from sap, including Trehala manna, the sweet-tasting cocoon of the Larinus maculates beetle from Turkey; and manna-lichen (Lecanora esculenta), which occasionally dries up and blows around to form semisweet clouds out of which manna settles into drifts from western Greece to the central Asian steppe.
Mannas form best in extremely dry climates — like the Middle East’s — where sap oozes at night and dries up in the morning. The favored theory on what the Israelites called manna is the sap of a tamarisk tree.
In Calabria and Sicily, Italian farmers cut the bark of the flowering ash (Fraxinus ornus) to get the dried sap, the only domesticated form of manna. Italian apothecaries used it for centuries as a laxative, and other mannas have been used for medicinal purposes.
Behroush Sharifi, a New York dealer in rare spices and dried foods from the ancient Silk Road who’s known as the Saffron King, imports two venerable forms of manna from Iran: Hedysarum manna and Shir-Khesht manna.
Both of them look like what they are: stuff knocked off bushes by the desert gatherers who harvest it. They contain bits of twigs and leaves and who knows what else. The Hedysarum is $22 an ounce, and the Shir-Khesht is $28. (Information is available by writing firstname.lastname@example.org; Mr. Sharifi plans to open an online store this summer.)
His roots in the world of manna go back 10 years. Mr. Sharifi, who left Iran as a child, returned for the first time in 2000 when President Clinton lifted the embargo on importing some Iranian food products, which had been in place since the 1979 Islamic revolution. His initial focus was saffron. He then took on other rare Persian products unknown to American cooks.
While visiting the bazaar in the city of Yazd, Mr. Sharifi came across a seller of manna, a product he had remembered hearing about as a child but hadn’t seen. He began importing it in 2008 and has built a following for it among his chef clients.
Garrett McMahon, a sous-chef at Perilla in Manhattan, uses Hedysarum manna with sea salt to finish off a foie gras terrine with Marcona almonds, candied kumquats and toasted brioche. “The manna allows us to achieve a sweet, salty balance while maintaining a great crunchy texture,” Mr. McMahon said.
Paul Liebrandt of Corton in Manhattan used Shir-Khesht manna in a dish of charred Frog Hollow Farm apricots, fresh wasabi and Kindai kampachi. “The texture is unlike any other I’ve experienced — chewy and crunchy at the same time,” Mr. Liebrandt said. “It also makes the food intensely personal, because no two people taste manna the same way. I might taste a haunting minty-ness, while you might detect a whiff of lemon. No other ingredient is like that.”
Hedysarum manna comes from Hedysarum alhagi, the camel thorn bush. It resembles Grape-Nuts mixed with aquarium sand, and tastes like a combination of maple syrup, brown sugar, blackstrap molasses, honey and nuts.
Even more complex and subtle is the Shir-Khesht manna from the cotoneaster nummilaria shrub. Shir-khesht looks like broken-up bits of concrete or coral and is whiter than hedysarum manna. It is sweet, with some gumminess that eventually dissolves in the mouth. Shir-khesht’s tongue-cooling effect comes from mannitol, a sugar alcohol in this and many other mannas; the sensation is similar to menthol, without the menthol taste. It has notes of honey and herb, and a faint bit of citrus peel.
I’ve made a cocktail with it, heating two parts water to one part Shir-Khesht manna, straining it, and adding the syrup to bourbon. As with the raw manna, the drink changes as you sip it. It is sweet, but not overly so. It is cooling, complex and satisfying.