Two images: on the left, a white bowl filled with a salad of barley and greens; on the right, an image of a smiling woman with her arms crossed.
Faith Kramer made this Talmudic barley and cucumber salad based on a recipe from Rabbi Rebecca Joseph. (Photos/Faith Kramer, left; Shoey Sindel, right)

‘Honey mustard goes back to the Talmud’: Rabbi writing book on food of the sages

What foods did the sages eat and write about? What does that tell us about Jews of ancient times? Rabbi Rebecca Joseph has pondered such questions in her studies of the Talmud and other classical rabbinic sources to understand how food was part of everyday and religious life.

Joseph, who lives in Berkeley, is a scholar, culinary historian and chef who is fascinated by the role food plays in these tracts and how it reflects life at the time they were written. Often teaching about food in the Talmud, she’s writing a book on the topic.

Besides beer, wine, herbs and spices, the Talmud references other foods, Joseph says: “Honey mustard goes back to the Talmud.”

Joseph jokes that the Talmud does not exactly offer recipes with specific instructions or measurements, and she has had to search Roman and other resources from the early centuries C.E. to recreate dishes.

A barley and cucumber salad uses mostly familiar ingredients, though Joseph replaced hard-to-find citrons with lemons. The honeyed wine is her recreation of anumlin, a Jewish adaptation of a Roman beverage. According to Joseph, anumlin is often mentioned as a celebratory drink the rabbis urged people to imbibe on Shabbat or holidays.

These recipes have been adapted for style and to reflect my experience making them.

Rabbi’s Table Salad with Barley and Cucumbers

Serves 4-6

  • 3 cups cooked barley (see notes)
  • 1 Tbs. minced garlic
  • 1 cup diced Persian or English cucumbers (¼-inch cubes)
  • ½ cup thinly sliced green onions (white and light green parts)
  • ¾ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, divided
  • ¾ cup finely chopped cilantro, divided
  • ¾ cup finely chopped mint, divided
  • 1½ tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tsp. ground coriander
  • ½ tsp. kosher or coarse sea salt, plus more as needed
  • ½ tsp. ground black pepper
  • 3 tsp. minced or grated lemon zest, divided
  • ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
  • ¼ cup olive oil

Fluff barley with fork to separate grains. In a medium bowl, combine barley, garlic, cucumber and green onion. Set aside 1 Tbs. each of the parsley, cilantro and mint for garnish. Place remainder of herbs in the bowl with barley.

In a small bowl, whisk the cumin, coriander, sea salt, pepper and 2 tsp. lemon zest with the lemon juice. Slowly add the olive oil, whisking briskly to emulsify. Toss dressing with the barley. Taste. Add salt if needed. Serve at room temperature garnished with remaining lemon zest, parsley, cilantro and mint. If made ahead, refrigerate barley and dressing separately. Bring to room temperature. Fluff barley, stir dressing and combine.

Notes: Barley is available hulled (with tough outer layer removed) or pearled (hulled plus with bran removed). Use either. To cook, combine 1 cup barley with 3 cups water and ¼ tsp. salt. Bring to boil, cover and adjust heat to keep at a simmer. The barley is done when it has softened (but is still a bit chewy) and has tripled in volume. Pearled barley should take 25-30 minutes and hulled barley 40-50 minutes, but timing will vary. Rinse, drain, then fluff with a fork. Refrigerate if made in advance, and bring to room temperature before using. Different brands of kosher and coarse salt have different volumes, so you may need to add more when tasting.

Honeyed Wine with Black Pepper

Serves 2-4

  • 2 cups dry white wine
  • ½ cup mild honey
  • ½ tsp. ground black pepper

Make sure wine and honey are at room temperature. Combine with pepper in a pitcher or large glass jar, stirring to dissolve honey. Chill for at least 2 hours. Serve cold.

Faith Kramer
Faith Kramer

Faith Kramer is a Bay Area food writer and the author of “52 Shabbats: Friday Night Dinners Inspired by a Global Jewish Kitchen.” Her website is Contact her at [email protected].