By Andrew Jotischky
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Additional info for A Hermit's Cookbook: Monks, Food and Fasting in the Middle Ages
It is a shrub with tough and inedible leaves, commonly found in the Judaean desert, and indigenous to Syria and Palestine. Although the leaves cannot be eaten, its roots are edible and can be used as a substitute for onions or garlic when boiled or sautéed. Alternatively, gum resin from the roots can be used to ﬂavour dishes of beans or Desert fathers, pillar-saints and fasting 37 herbs. When Sabas lived in solitude in the Judaean desert, his food bag apparently contained only asphodel and reed hearts, as well as a small trowel used for digging the asphodel out of the ground.
Sabas, without saying anything to James, went secretly into the wadi, picked up the beans and spread them out on to the rocks to dry. Much later, when it was his turn to do kitchen duty in the guesthouse, Sabas invited James to dine there, and served up the same beans, recooked in a stew. 6 Eating raw as opposed to uncooked food was regarded as particularly virtuous by some monks. There were two ethical aspects to the ideal: ﬁrst, the desire to spend no longer than the absolute minimum on the preparation of food, so as to preserve the state of indifference to it; and second, the belief that food in its original state most closely resembled what Adam and Eve had eaten in the Garden of Eden.
Doughty, who was indigent and ran out of the supplies he had brought to the desert, learnt from the Beduin how to ﬁnd and eat wild leeks and wild sorrel in the upland areas of Arabia. He also found small tubers which he described as tasting like potatoes. The deserts of Arabia, Syria and Palestine are in fact surprisingly fertile, with many halophytes (salt-tolerant plants) and xerophytes (drought-resistant) species such as purslane growing there. Although the average annual rainfall in these deserts is low, when they arrive the rains can be remarkably heavy, albeit for short periods.