Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Off the Table

After a kosher-certifying agency deemed quinoa, the South American grain-like seed, Passover-compliant, it’s become a darling of the Passover table. But now rabbis are having doubts.

Print Email

In 1999, a humble South American foodstuff took an unlikely seat at the Passover table. The Star-K, one of the country’s leading kosher certifying agencies, proclaimed quinoa—the starchy seed that is a darling of natural food lovers—to be kosher for Passover. Despite its fluffy, grain-like appearance, quinoa was designated a member of the goosefoot species, a cousin to beets, and completely unrelated to the five forbidden chametz grains: wheat, spelt, oats, rye, and barley. Furthermore, the Star-K deemed quinoa not kitniyot (literally “small things”)—an additional category of foods such as rice and legumes that Ashkenazi Jews customarily avoid on Passover—which meant it was kosher for all Jews, not just Sephardim that have the practice of eating kitniyot during Passover.

Until the 1980s, quinoa, originally from the Andes Mountains and now primarily cultivated in Peru and Bolivia, was essentially unknown in the United States, let alone among American Jews. But by the mid-2000s it vaulted to MVP status. Quinoa seemed to have it all: the satisfying heft of a starch, a high level of protein, and enough culinary versatility as a Passover grain to be turned into salads, stuffing, fritters, and a perfectly respectable oatmeal substitute. Less than a decade after being designated kosher for Passover, quinoa could be found in Passover cookbooks and on the ample buffet tables at Passover resorts. A handful of rabbis disagreed with Star-K’s decision, but they found their dissenting opinions largely drowned out by the endorsement of certifying agencies and consumers’ overwhelming enthusiasm for quinoa. As food writer Adeena Sussman put it in a 2008 article for Gourmet, “this grain-that’s-not-a-grain is becoming the belle of the Passover ball.”

But this year, the dissent has finally gained traction. In February, the Star-K released a consumer alert stating that some quinoa fields had been found in proximity to fields growing “certain crops”—by which they mean chametz or kitniyot grains—raising the risk of cross-contamination. As a result, consumers were advised to only purchase quinoa with reliable kosher-for-Passover certification. A few weeks later, the Chicago Rabbinical Council, whose influence and authority extend beyond the Chicago region, released a similar statement approving quinoa for Passover only if it was imported from Bolivia (where no chametz-contaminated fields have been found), packed in quinoa-only plants, and hand-checked for foreign grains by consumers before the first night of Passover. The statement gives Trader Joe’s, Ancient Harvest, and Israel’s Sugat brands the green-light for 2011, at least.

Red and yellow quinoa growing in Isla de la Luna, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia.
twiga269/flickr

If the Star-K’s supervisors found evidence of chametz growing near quinoa fields, the new regulations placed on Passover quinoa-eating this year make sense. But in fact the story does not end with a simple bowl of Bolivian porridge. In practice, it seems that the official approval stamp from the certifying agencies does not guarantee much of anything.

I recently took the subway to Pomegranate, the upscale kosher superstore in Brooklyn’s heavily Orthodox Midwood neighborhood, to stock up for Passover. Last year, along with matzoh, marinara sauce, and overpriced spices, I purchased at Pomegranate two boxes of Passover-certified quinoa. This time I could not find it anywhere. When I asked a store clerk, he gave me a curious look, then walked me over to the tiny kitniyot section where the quinoa sat next to the rice and chickpeas. “You know what kitniyot is?” he asked. “Sure,” I said. “So,” he said, glancing sheepishly at the package then back at me, “the choice is up to you.”

The marginalization of quinoa to Pomegranate’s kitniyot section is not the only indication that things may be shifting. Some catering companies like Boston’s Catering by Andrew and 12 Tribes in San Francisco follow the Chicago Rabbinical Council stated guidelines. Others are ditching quinoa entirely. This year, for example, the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess resort in Arizona will substitute faux Israeli couscous (made from matzoh meal) for the quinoa recipes they have offered in past years. Another caterer, whose client is one of the country’s most prestigious Passover hotels, asked to remain anonymous and refused to disclose whether quinoa would be on this year’s menu. “It is just too controversial,” he said.

The Orthodox Union, arguably the country’s most influential certifying agency, takes a soft-handed approach to the controversy. Quinoa is on its official kitniyot list, cited as a food that “may be kitniyot” and therefore should be avoided. But its Passover guide ultimately punts it, advising customers to consult their rabbis.

When it comes to kashrut in other communities, societal pressure to be the most kosher sometimes trumps common sense, or even Jewish law. As rabbi and food historian Gil Marks writes in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, kitniyot was problematic from the start and for many generations was not taken seriously. “In the thirteenth century,” he writes, “Rav Samuel ben Solomon of Falaise called the prohibition against kitniyot … an erroneous custom.” And yet, over the centuries, it has gained an increasingly strong foothold for the simple reason that, once enough people say something is wrong for long enough, it begins to legitimately feel wrong.

Quinoa is the latest in a long line of foods—from corn to peanuts and green beans—that have been designated as kitniyot despite evidence to the contrary. The revered Orthodox rabbi Rav Moshe Feinstein concluded that peanuts are a New World food—something the European rabbis did not know about when the notion of kitniyot began, and therefore not required to be included in the minhag (custom). And yet it is impossible to find Passover-certified peanuts or peanut butter in stores today. Granting them certification would unfortunately bring, as the caterer said, too much controversy.

As for quinoa: While it is not biologically speaking a grain and is unarguably a New World food, past trends would suggest that quinoa is headed for the kitniyot pile, despite its endorsement of the Star-K and Chicago Rabbinical Council. The question is, how much will consumers push back against this? For the last 12 years, Jews have grown used to the idea of quinoa as Passover’s starchy savior. They may not be willing to let go so easily. In the 19th century, there was an attempt to classify potatoes as kitniyot, as Marks writes, “but this was duly rejected by the populace.”

As for me, I decided not to buy the quinoa at Pomegranate this year. They were charging $6.99 for a one-pound bag—nearly double the typical price. I bought it at Trader Joe’s instead.

Print Email
Elimelech says:

OCD has overtaken the frum world. What, all of a sudden “Moishe Pipick” knows better than HaRav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l?

The more I look into it, the more I would be willing to celebrate Passover without observing kitniyot restrictions. The problem, for me, would be finding “would be kosher for Passover if not for kitniyot” foods. Fresh items (peanuts in shells, raw corn on the cob, etc) might be no problem as those don’t usually need supervision to begin with and are very unlikely to be contaminated with chometz. However, as the article said, peanut butter and other processed/packaged kitniyot (but not chometz) items are impossible to find.

As Elimelech put it, it’s a form of OCD. There’s a fear of any little thing rising in the slightest bit and somehow tricking someone into consuming chometz. It’s like there’s a hole in the ground and people put a fence around it to keep people safe. Except someone worries that people will peak over the fence and fall in so they make another fence further back. Except someone else worries that a person will peak over that fence, go tumbling through the other 2 fences and fall in so he puts up a fence even further back. Etc. Etc. Etc. Eventually, you have a fence erected nowhere near the hole which serves no real purpose, protects nobody from harm and just restricts movement. Yet, nobody is willing to question the fences and tear them down because they’ve been around for a hundred years and they have momentum.

TechyDad, this is one more reason to make aliya. Israel is really the only place where you can get stuff that’s kosher for Passover without worrying about the kitniyot madness.

Count me in as someone who thinks that the Ashkenazic rabbinic navel gazing over Kitniyot is something that should come to an end.

In case the rabbis didn’t notice, European Jewry is long dead. Jews, whether Ashkenazic or Sephardic, live side by side, either in Israel, or in the United States.

That next door neighbors can’t eat together because of ‘tradition’ is, to be blunt, foolish (and that’s using nice language).

There is something deeply warped and in truth, breaking with the idea that Jews are a people.

The idea that Rabbi’s should push such a seperating idea is one that should be buried, the sooner the better. Obviously, the restrictions on Kiniyot are not based on Halacha, otherwise no one would be eating these foods.

Yo, Jacob,

Does that mean we Ashkenazim can eat rice?

philip mann says:

we need a frumkeit olympics.

In all honesty, the trend since antiquity seems to be that Pesach must be a miserable time of privation and sacrifice. These arbitrary rules have only one linking criterion, that if we enjoy Passover a little too much there has to be a foodstuff to blame. If consumers had found quinoa to be bland, boring and unfulfilling, the rabbis would not care one whit if it was kosher for Pesach.

The blame therefore lies in consumers, we simply embraced quinoa a little too enthusiastically.

We vegetarians are thrilled by quinoa all year round – but especially during Peysekh, when this SEED (and it is indeed a seed) gives us protein without having to resort to 8 days of eggs and cheese. I guess it’s easy for the Heksher police to dismiss this healthy and versatile perfect protein because they stuff themselves on chicken and beef? I’ll put my colon up against theirs any day. (And as always – quinoa will have pride of place on my seder table).

TechyDad – Where do you live? Here in Northern NJ even ShopRite has a shelf with kosher l’pesach kitniyos items. Maybe it’s because there are Israeli and Sephardi populations here? Check any large kosher grocery or a grocery in an area where there are Israelis or Sephardim. You can find kosher l’pesach rice (I bought risotto rice today… I have a heter to eat kitniyos despite being Ashkenazi, as I have health issues that limit my diet already), lentils, garbanzos, kitniyos spices, etc. I will also be eating quinoa this year, as I have in years past, but will be making sure it’s from Trader Joe’s. What I’m interested in is the cross-contamination. If non-Bolivian quinoa fields are truly contaminated by neighboring chametzdik crops, that has big implications for people with Celiac Diseaes or gluten intolerance. I am curious if they’ve done ELISA or other testing to see if there is a detectable level of gluten in the finished quinoa product. If so, these packages should be labeled to warn people they contain gluten (which is in all the chametzdik grains except some specially grown oats). If not, wouldn’t the amount of chametz be bitul (nullified) because it’s undetectable by tests?

J Carpenter says:

Ease up already—orthodoxy should trump orthopraxis. Focus more on faith and belief and just a tad bit less on practice. Too much emphasis on “getting it right” obscures the WHY—
Peace and blessings,
JC

Paula Globerman says:

The ” my kosher is better than your kosher” is really boring. Let’s leave the minutae to the navel gazers and the frum police and make passover meaningful,interesting, and delicious. Who says ,and where is it written, that pesach food be horrible? Not at my house and never at my table.

Chana Batya says:

Enough! I’m ready to jump the Ashkenazic ship of my birth to the much more reasonable Sephardic/Mizrachi ship of modernity. Rice? Bake a rice bread; I defy you to see it either rise or ferment. Beans? You have to be kidding. Mustard? Why not mustard (although without the prospect of a pastrami sandwich, I really don’t mind that much)? Sesame seeds? Doesn’t SEED mean NOT GRAIN?

I know the rules and am mighty tired of them. I don’t like quinoa, but if I did, it would be on my Seder table.

Aren’t we Jews so that nobody could tell us what to do? Why don’t we stop listening to voices that make no sense to us? Argue for your quinoa!

M. Brukhes says:

This is further depressing evidence of the pervasive anhedonia among the Orthodox rabbinate. I know that’s what they do, but still, genig shoyn! In the early modern period, in Poland, a va’ad tried to proclaim potatoes to be kitnyos. Their towns people, who had little to eat EXCEPT potatoes during Passover, rebelled, and the ban didn’t stick (tanks Gott!). We poshete yidn should do the same thing with quinoa. If the grocer in Midwood is saying that the choice is mine, I’ll make my choice, then. Who’s wit’ me?!

Howard says:

Wheat, barley, spelt, rye, oats – all the rest is commentary, and rather annoying commentary at that.

If I was living some over the top exemplary life focussed on the finest halachic distinctions maybe kitniot would be worth paying attention, and maybe I should even worry about quinoa too. But who would I be kidding?

We’ve been honorary Sephardim (the honor is self bestowed) in this regard for many years, and feel not a twinge of guilt. If the kibbutz galuyot of Israel isn’t enough to get rid of the idea of not eating kitniot, really, what HAS it been good for?

Betty Ross says:

And if sesame candies are ok, where’s the sesame oil? And didnt there used to be peanut oil with a hechsher?

Be afraid, be very afraid

Yaakov Hillel says:

As a 65 year old student of the Talmud I can assure all that Mimonidies and Rashi, the greatest teachers of Judaism ate Kitniyot (legumes)on Pesach. The two great teachers of the fourth century who grew up together, Abaya and Rava, What is your favorite dish on the night of the Seder, the other one answered rice. There was a temporary problem in a certain european city. The rabbi of the town had to make a decision. The Market salesmen of grains and powdered grains like flour and powdered beans not always finished all the flour in the barrel when they poured over it the powdered beans. There was no way that they could see when the Bean flour ended and the wheat flour began. At this point there ws a decision not to use the bean powders on Passover because of the possibility of the wheat flour mixing in to it and becoming moist causing the problem of leavening on Passover. Of course if the powders are in question then it makes sense that the beans that make the bean flour should also be unusable. However this causes a different problem of Rabbis are not allowed to make a prohibition on the back of another prohibition. The only problem was that it was not the Rabbis making this prohibition, it was the Jews themselves. A new problem arose to what now had became a custom, what are to be classified as beans and what not, before we knew it every thing that grew and could be collected and had a definite shape became a bean whether it was a sesame seed or a lima bean. Also in the time that passed people do not buy and sell powdered produce from barrels. When you buy rice you know it is rice when you buy powdered beans you know that it is only powdered beans. The Law states that if a prohibition was made for a certain reason and the reason ceases to exist, the prohibition also ceases to exist. Another important point, The Talmud states that if there are customs that are of low quality, we are commanded to stop these customs. The things that are prohibited come only from the

Yaakov Hillel says:

the five grains wheat, barley, oats,spelt, and buckwheat. anything other than these grains are not prohibited as Chametz or leavened bread because they do not rise when left to stand after they are mixed and kneaded with water. We cause people to use more products mixed with these grains, like Matzoh itself that has the greatest posiblity of coming close to the prohibition, this proves that this custom which becomes misleading is of low quality. By Talmudic law must be stopped. The problem is not Judaism it is the European Jews. Who knows maybe G-d did not like the European Jews taking the wrong path. If you stop playing with low quality customs, Passover may be a more fun thing to happen.

Jacob says:

What’s with the (ultra-)Orthodox, Ashkenazi rabbinate? In medieval times, it was the kitniyot because we Ashkenazim would be too stupid to understand the difference between chametz and similar legumes. Then it was wearing black and white clothing because clothes with color weren’t modest enough. And it became forbidden for boys and girls to learn in the same room . . . or school. And when they did meet, they couldn’t even shake hands.

Why do we have this trend of doing everything 120% as if 100% observance, as per the letter of the law, is not good enough?

irabby says:

What else will the Rabbi’s do? They split hairs. And then they split them again and then they try to put them together again. Like Shakespeare said “Much ado about nothing” The sad thing is that they don’t know and sadder still are the people who hang on every word and think they are better than the rest of us.

Howard says:

Regardless of what some rabbis may proclaim, we’ll be having quinoa at our Pesach table this year. Chag same’ach!

Al Kaplan says:

As the great Talmudic Scholar, Reb Oysbedum concludes “Do as you see fit
to do” and Hashem will pardon you. The arguments noted above sound very
much like”How many angel can dance on the head of a pin”
Have a zissen pesach.

J. of New York says:

As if there weren’t already enough narishkeit.

Jay in Toronto says:

The bottom line is that the rabbis simply like to forbid things because it makes them look more frum. This article highlights how much BS is involved in the kashrut indurstry. First the rabbis say, “It’s not kitniyot, so you may eat it.” Then they say, “It’s not kitniyot, but it may be contaminated with chametz, so nobody may eat it”. Then they say, “Wait! It is kitniyot, so you no Askenazim may eat it even if it isn’t contaminated”.

It will certainly have a place at my vegetarian seder and all holiday long (as well as the rest of the year).

HA-MAGGID says:

YOUR FIVE GRAINS;WHEAT,BARLEY,SPELT,OATS,RYE; ARE NOT MY FIVE GRAINS

שיפון – Shippon – einkorn (T. monococcum)
כוסמין – Kusmin – emmer (T. dicoccon),
חיטה – Chittah – durum wheat (T. durum)
שעורה – Se’orah – barley – 2 row (Hordeum vulgare)
שיבולת שועל – Shibbolet – barley – 6 row (Hordeum vulgare)

SEE WIKIPEDIA UNDER “MATZO” OATS AND RYE AND SPELT NEVER GREW IN ANCIENT ISRAEL. BUT IN EUROPE! WHAT HAS EUROPE TO TO WITH THE TORAH?

Rachel says:

Maybe there should be a spot for quinoa on the seder plate, right next to the orange.

This argument is ridiculous, unnecessary, and could be time, money, and energy better spent.

Still splitting hairs over rice because some rabbi in Poland in the 17th century found some trace amounts of flour in some shtetl’s market, eh? Why can’t we put our faith in modern technology to ensure the Pesach purity of rice that hits the Seder table?

How about I hit the batch of rice in my pantry with the leaf blower just for added security. That 75 m.p.h., category 1 hurricane force wind should take care of any chametz.

DesertMOT says:

I’m going to a Shabbas potluck this Shabbas… and I would like to make a VEGAN Ashkenazi-friendly protein based allergy-free (have heard that tree nuts are okay, but I don’t want anyone with nut allergies to have risk) recipe ideas (serves at least 6-8 people) [no quinoa, have read too much above, too controversial;):)]… of course, I also want it to be “fun/modern”… Any suggestions?? Thank you in advance of your replies/suggestions!! :)

Solomon says:

The Orthodox really get carried away with all these rules. Do they think God really cares if we accidentally ingest a molecule of treyf, or chometz in the case of Pesach? Can’t we just leave it at not eating leavened bread during Pesach and not eating foods specifically prohibited in Torah the rest of the year? The real test of holiness is in how we treat our fellow humans, Jewish or not- with charity, lovingkindness, fairness, etc. and not in obsessing over minutiae of dietary laws.

vicki karno says:

Kosher for Passover Whole Wheat Matzo…..how is that possible?

To DesertMOT:
Wow, you’re burning the midnight (and after) oil worrying about this. So try a lot of veggies–a veggy stew, maybe a ratatouille–eggplant dish with tomatoes, zucchini, onions, peppers (you know the drill). Unless they bend a bit, vegans will just have to tough it out for protein until the end of Pesach. Have a look at this website:
http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/protein.htm . Just about everything there is “asoor” if you won’t eat kitniyot. Come on now, aren’t these prohibitions (quinoa of all things) getting out of hand?

Hey, @Solomon: “The Orthodox really get carried away with all these rules. Do they think God really cares…”

Reminds me of a certain question we read in the Haggadah last week: “What is this service to YOU?” (to you, and not to HIMSELF). You’ve already built solid barriers between what YOU deem sane, reasonable Judaism and the entire rest of the Jewish world.

Imagine if somebody questioned every Jewish action you took – “do you really think God cares if you’re in synagogue on Yom Kippur?” “do you really think God cares if you give the full 10% to tzedakah?”

It’s a slippery slope, to suggest that God is paying attention to YOU, but probably doesn’t notice much what other Jews are doing.

p.s. Look up the word “omniscient” sometime – God certainly knows and definitely cares.

There comes a point when focusing on all the tiny minutiae you can possibly get wrong distracts from the purpose anyway. We’re supposed to eat matzah and avoid chametz to remind us of the redemption from Egypt, which was the forging of our identity as a people. How many people who are focused on finding a way to rationalize declaring quinoa “kitniyot” are thinking about the broader meaning of Pesach on what it means for us as a people? It’s like buying a new smart phone and spending all of your time reading the manual in exquisite detail, rather than enjoying the thing itself. We didn’t come out of one slavery to be shackled by another, and it seems the rabbis of the Sephardi and Mizrachi communities have remembered that much better than our Ashkenazi ones…

invhand says:

Enough about quinoa. What about peanuts? They grow in the ground in shells. How can they be contaminated by chametz? Plus, they are not even a starch. I buy unsalted, natural peanut butter. It has one ingredient in it – peanuts. Pesach Hecksher or not, I am entirely comfortable eating peanut butter on Pesach. I grew up eating peanut butter on Pesach. My far-more-observant neighbors ate peanut butter on Pesach.

These new stringencies are a way for certain Rabbis to demonstrate their authority. It is the silliness of the ruling,followed by compliance that demonstrates power. Anyone can make water run downhill. If you can make water run uphill, then you have power.

Motel says:

Wheat, rye, barley, spelt and oats (by cross contamination) all contain gluten, and should not be eaten by celiacs at any time during the year (almost 1% of the population, most of whom have not been diagnosed by a doctor). It doesn’t matter whether the food made with these ingredients is leavened or unleavened. Quinoa is a healthy food choice, as it contains a complete protein and no gluten. Some people who are not formally diagnosed with celiac disease even after testing, nevertheless, benefit by avoiding or minimizing their intake of gluten containing foods. They simply feel better by doing so.

Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say that I have really enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again very soon!

Linda Haas-Shapira says:

Can someone explain why, in the 1950′s and ’60′s, Planters Peanut Oil was the only K for P cooking oil ? Just asking…Chag sameach!

Chaya says:

I too remember peanut oil for Pesach, the only stuff my grandmother would use. So now peanuts are verboten and we get pesticide-laden cottonseed oil.

This nonsense is a celebration of an even-then-misguided notion and some choose to make it stricter and stricter so they can do their kosherer-than-thou shtick.

2000

Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Off the Table

After a kosher-certifying agency deemed quinoa, the South American grain-like seed, Passover-compliant, it’s become a darling of the Passover table. But now rabbis are having doubts.

More on Tablet:

Is There Still a Jewish Question? Why I’m an Anti-Anti-Zionist

By Ellen Willis — In this essay, from 2003, the leftist feminist rock critic Ellen Willis discussed her misgivings about Zionism—and about its opponents