The first tasks for Chef Todd Gray and his wife, Ellen Kassoff, were to figure out just what manna is and how to procure it.
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?”
What is it indeed?
“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, Va., 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 has settled on a Persian version of manna and wants people to use it as they might use other culinary elements currently trending, such as pink Himalayan salt or truffle salt. But getting the manna is difficult thanks to political tensions.
Fortunately, Gray has connected with Behroush Sharifi, an Iranian based in Manhattan who sells Iranian spices to chefs.