Cooking with Martha: The Flavors of Biblical Israel

As they continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary [who] sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” Luke 10:38-40

Mary and Martha

Legend of Sts. Mary and Martha, National Museum Warsaw, public domain

 

We’ve all read the passage in Luke in which Jesus comes to Bethany and eats at the house of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Perhaps we’ve even sympathized a bit with Martha as she works hard to serve her guests while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. But have you ever wondered what Martha served Jesus and his disciples?

I imagine that like women of our time, Martha wanted to give her best and most delicious food to her guest and his friends. But in biblical times, what was that? What kind of food was she serving to Jesus when, fed up with her sister’s (however rightful) attention to Jesus, she asked him to make Mary help her.

As I did my research for The Tomb, A Novel of Martha, I spent considerable time looking into the foods that Martha most likely would have turned to on a daily basis. Here are some of the flavors we would have found in Martha’s pantry:

Sweet:
  • Fruits were plentiful in Martha’s Israel and especially in the fertile areas surrounding Bethany. Martha would have had plenty of grapes, figs, melons, and pomegranates.
  • Grape and pomegranate juice would be boiled down into a syrup to use a sweetener.
  • Dates, naturally full of sugar, would have been available from traders and used in many sweet dishes.
  • Honey, of course, was a delicious luxury for anyone who was brave enough to hunt down a bee’s nest.
Sour:
  • Goat and sheep’s milk would have been used to make a thick, sour drink or strained to make tangy yogurt and cheese.
  • Vinegar was used much as it is today, some of it aged for years in casks to develop its distinct flavor.
Spicy:
  • onions, garlic, and leeks were heavily used in Martha’s time.
  • pices such as anise, coriander, cinnamon, mustand,cumin, dill and mint.
  • Pepper was costly and a great luxury but not unknown to biblical cooks.
  • Herbs would have been grown by every cook to flavor her dishes with sage, rosemary, thyme, wild mint, and lavender.
  • Rosewater and myrhh would have been used in the wealthy homes to flavor their wine.
Salty:
  • Salt harvested from the Dead Sea.
  • Cooks flavored their foods with dried and ground locusts, and dried salted fish.

 

With a little imagination, a cooking fire, and some time, biblical women such as Martha could make a feast fit for King Herod. In The Tomb, A Novel of Martha, you’ll read more about the food Martha prepared for her family and for her favorite guest, Jesus.

What is your favorite dish to serve guests?
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2 Responses to “Cooking with Martha: The Flavors of Biblical Israel”

  1. LeAnne Hardy | November 5, 2019 at 6:50 pm #

    Interesting. Bread was the staple starch, wasn’t it? So would the main dish be kind of like a curry to dip the bread in? Would it have meat in it for company?

  2. Jane | November 18, 2019 at 3:09 pm #

    My signature dishes include: apple or peach cheesecake; apple-cinnamon swirl Bundt cake with just a hint of orange flavor.

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