A few years ago Aren Maier explored the cooking methods and ingredients of Philistine cuisine, determining that they were different from those of their Israelite and Canaanite neighbors. Now a new article by Yael Mahler-Slasky and Mordechai E. Kislev adds what seems to be another traditionally Philistine ingredient to the mix. In “Lathyrus Consumption in Late Bronze and Iron Age Sites in Israel: An Aegean Affinity” (Journal of Archaeological Science 37/10 [Oct 2010] 2477–85), Mahler-Slasky and Kislev suggest that evidence for cultivation of the grass pea (Lathyrus sativus) and the closely related red grass pea (Lathyrus cicera) may indicate the presence of Aegean populations in the southern Levant. According to the abstract,
This paper presents new evidence, together with previous findings, for the appearance of charred seeds of Lathyrus sativus (grass pea)/Lathyrus cicera. This grain legume was a food staple in ancient times, principally in the Aegean region, but also appeared sporadically and in a limited way in the archaeological record of the southern Levant. It is encountered there first in the Late Bronze Age but disappears in the record at the end of the Iron Age. Although a palatable, nutritious plant adapted for growing under adverse conditions, its seeds can be toxic when consumed in large quantities. Apparently L. sativus/cicera made its way to the lowlands of the southern Levant, either by trade or with Philistine immigrants. It is absent at other south Levantine Bronze Age (i.e., Canaanite) and Iron Age sites and it remained a food component in the southern coastal region (i.e., Philistia, the region associated with the biblical Philistines) up to the end of Iron Age II, suggesting a possible ethnic association. Evidence of L. sativus/cicera joins that of another Aegean archaeobotanical import from an earlier, Middle Bronze Age II context, Lathyrus clymenum, found at Tel Nami, a coastal site farther to the north of the region.
Grass peas are a hardy plant that can grow in many extreme environments. They are often the only alternative to starvation when other crops fail during times of famine. The downside is that they contain traces of oxalyldiaminopropionic acid (ODAP), a neurotoxin. When eaten as a large part of a diet over long periods, consumption can lead to paralysis in adults and even brain damage in children.
The grass pea and the red grass pea were both considered the same species according to rabbinic law (Kil. 1:1). The seeds are soaked in water and crushed, and the taste is similar to that of fava beans. Nowadays, grass pea seeds are sold for human consumption in Florence, Italy, and a flour made from grass peas is the main ingredient in the Spanish dish gachas manchegas (“mush from La Mancha,” also called gachas de almorta, “grass pea mush”).