To rice or not to rice? That is a question that divides Jews during Passover. I grew up following Sephardic tradition, which allows for consumption of rice and legumes during Pesach. Ashkenazic custom does not allow it even though the biblical prohibition is on grains only.
When I moved to the US from Israel over a quarter of a century ago, I held on to some culinary traditions from home. Celebrating my heritage was about preserving my identity in a world so different than the one from which I came. Eating rice on Passover was one such tradition.
In my early years here, when friends extended us a generous invitation to their family Seder suggesting I bring something to share from my tradition, I did exactly that: I brought a humongous bowl of rice. I might as well have brought an inedible centerpiece for the beautiful Seder table. My bowl of rice was the elephant in the room. No one touched it other than my husband and me, nor did anyone make a comment or offer an explanation. It was not my last faux pas, I dare say; at the time I was culturally clueless about the subtle differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazic customs.
Before the potato made its way from the Americas to Europe, Passover must have been a real hardship—no rice or legumes, not even potato kugel. In comparison, with the plethora of commercially available kosher cakes, cookies and cereals, Passover today is no hardship at all. I do not mind eating matzah, but rice is the real reason I do not feel a sense of deprivation.
As my daughter and I became pescatarians, I generally moved away from cooking rice to other grains richer in protein, like the super food quinoa. The rising consumption of quinoa in Israel and here spurred questions about whether it is a grain or a legume and whether it would be kosher for Passover. Some Ashkenazi rabbis in Israel allowed it; some did not. When the Orthodox Union certified quinoa kosher for Passover in December 2013, this issue became moot. Now we can all—Sephardim as well as Ashkenazim—add quinoa to our Pesach pantry.
This is good news, especially for anyone who avoids animal protein or maintains a gluten-free diet. Called by the Incas chyisaya mama or “mother of all grains,” quinoa is not a grain at all. It is related to beets, spinach and chard, and its leaves can be eaten, too. It is rich with most of the nutrients necessary for sustaining life. And it is one of the only plant foods to provide complete protein. Grains and legumes, on the other hand, must be consumed together for full protein.
You can substitute quinoa for rice in any of your favorite recipes. Cooking it successfully requires just a few simple steps and takes less time than rice. If you gave up on quinoa because of perceived bitterness, know that this can be remedied by rinsing the quinoa before cooking, which removes saponin, a natural bug repellant that coats the quinoa seeds. Most packaged quinoa in the US is pre-rinsed, but rinse it if there is no such indication on the package.
At their best, food traditions bridge divides and bring us together. Where rice divides us, quinoa is a bridge. This Passover, I will serve quinoa, substituting it for the rice in the dish I took to that Seder years ago, without worrying about offending a long-held tradition. It will remind me of how far I have come since. It will also be an expression of hope for more unity as we move ahead.