While quinoa might not yet have the name recognition of traditional Passover favorites like matzah balls, gefilte fish or macaroons, you may have noticed that the grain-like “superfood” is increasingly making an appearance on seder tables, especially in North America.
That’s because this South American crop is not just nutritious, versatile and gluten-free – it’s widely (but not universally) considered kosher for Passover. Which means that for those observing Passover’s myriad dietary restrictions, particularly the Ashkenazi customs that bar not just hametz (leavened food plus wheat, barley, spelt, oats and rye unless baked into matzah) but also kitniyot (a category that includes legumes, corn and rice), it offers a nice carb fix during a week in which many other kitchen staples are verboten.
What Is Quinoa?
Grown primarily in South America, quinoa, when cooked, looks and tastes like a grain. However, it’s not a grain, but a member of the chenopodium class of plants. Not widely exported until the 1990s, quinoa has become increasingly trendy in the United States, particularly among people on gluten-free and vegetarian diets. You can find it in most supermarkets, shelved with the grains. Several brands are now certified kosher for Passover by major kosher agencies like the Orthodox Union and Star K.
Why Wouldn’t Quinoa Be Kosher for Passover?
Two main reasons: It could be processed in a factory that also processes grains or other ingredients that are forbidden on Passover, and it could be considered kitniyot, the category of foods, like legumes and rice, barred by Ashkenazi rabbis in the Middle Ages. Sephardic custom allows kitniyot, and growing numbers of non-Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews, including the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, have adopted this custom as well. Everyone in the rabbinic and kosher world agrees that if you can eat kitniyot and a certifying agency like the Orthodox Union has determined that the quinoa in question did not come into contact with any Passover-forbidden items, quinoa is perfectly acceptable on Passover.
So Is Quinoa Kitniyot — and What Is Kitniyot Anyway?
Therein lies the debate. Some rabbis believe it is kitniyot, while others believe it isn’t. Kitniyot is a category that applies to a long list of foods that medieval Ashkenazi rabbis deemed unkosher for Passover for fear that they could be confused with the five hametz grains (wheat, barley, rye, oats and spelt). Why would such confusion occur? Because these foods were often stored alongside the five grains, because they can be ground into a flour like those grains, and because when cooked up they look similar to the forbidden grains. (Learn more about kitniyot here.)
Since the medieval rabbis of Europe had never heard of quinoa (or other New World foods like potatoes and corn) they didn’t rule on whether or not to classify it as kitniyot. So modern rabbis have had to decide if it counts as kitniyot or not – and not surprisingly, they have come to different conclusions. Israel’s chief rabbinate has ruled that quinoa is kitniyot, while the Orthodox Union (which was initially undecided) has ruled it is not kitniyot.
What’s Right For You?
If you aren’t sure whether quinoa is right for you for Passover, you might want to check with a rabbi or friend you trust, and find out whether they use it or not. Likewise, if you are thinking of bringing a quinoa dish to a kosher-for-Passover friend’s house during the holiday, you should check with them first. Checking about any food is generally a good policy during Passover, since Jews have widely different levels of observance (and definitions of observance) on this holiday. The spectrum (and there are many variations along this spectrum) runs from those who attend seders, but do not observe dietary restrictions for the rest of the eight-day holiday, to those who observe all the dietary restrictions and eat food only if it is served on Passover dishes and been prepared in a kitchen that has been thoroughly cleaned and made kosher for Passover.
Our Favorite Passover Recipes with Quinoa
Chicken Soup with Quinoa, Leeks and Abondigas (contains kitniyot)
Pronounced: AHSH-ken-AH-zee, Origin: Hebrew, Jews of Central and Eastern European origin.
Pronounced: khah-METZ or KHUH-metz, Origin: Hebrew, bread or any food that has been leavened or contains a leavening agent. Hametz is prohibited on Passover.
Pronounced: kit-nee-YOTE, Origin: Hebrew, meaning “little things,” the term here refers to legumes, corn, rice and other non-hametz foods prohibited for use on Passover by some Ashkenazic rabbis in the medieval period. Many Sephardic Jews (and Conservative Jews) do allow them on Passover.
Pronounced: KOH-sher, Origin: Hebrew, adhering to kashrut, the traditional Jewish dietary laws.
Pronounced: SAY-der, Origin: Hebrew, literally “order”; usually used to describe the ceremonial meal and telling of the Passover story on the first two nights of Passover. (In Israel, Jews have a seder only on the first night of Passover.)