When Rabbi Shoshan Ghoori of the Orthodox Union first traveled to La Rinconada, Peru, the world’s highest city, the air was so thin that he needed an oxygen tank just to stay conscious. But the lack of air did not deter him from his peculiar mission: deciding whether quinoa should be kosher for Passover.
Over the next two years, Ghoori would return to the Andean highlands on nearly 10 fact-finding missions. Though he set out to discover only the food’s kosher status, he would become an unlikely champion of exploited Peruvian farmers, helping them export their goods for a fair price.
Before Ghoori undertook his quest, a competing kosher certification agency had ruled that the grain could be kosher for Passover. But the O.U., the nation’s largest kosher certification agency, had refused to give its stamp of approval.
The plant is not among the five grains — wheat, spelt, oats, barley and rye — prohibited on Passover by Jewish law. In fact, quinoa is not a grain at all; it’s a member of the goosefoot family, related to spinach and beets.
But some rabbinic authorities feared that quinoa could be a kind of kitniyot, a group of grains and legumes that could be cross-contaminated with the five forbidden Passover grains. Ashkenazi Jews of European origin follow a centuries-old prohibition against eating kitniyot, which includes staples like rice, corn, chickpeas and sometimes peanuts.
The question of quinoa’s Passover status had been nagging at Ghoori for years. “People would ask me, ‘Is quinoa kosher for Passover?’” he said. “I didn’t have a completely informed answer, and neither did the OU. We all needed more information.”
Ghoori, director of client relations for the O.U.’s Latin American operations, raised the issue with the agency’s top Jewish legal experts in 2012. They dispatched him to the highlands of Peru and Bolivia to study how the local population grew and cooked quinoa.
Ghoori visited with farmers and villagers throughout the Andes, and his findings were encouraging. “I saw how the natives were using the quinoa, and it wasn’t to make bread,” he said. “It was put in soups, in their teas and sprinkled on everything [as] a good vitamin.”
Worries about regular cross-contamination with grains like wheat also proved groundless. “Quinoa is grown, planted and harvested with nothing else next to it,” he said. “People are not producing quinoa and wheat and corn.”
Convinced by Ghoori’s research, the O.U. announced in December 2013 that it would begin certifying quinoa kosher for Passover. Ghoori estimates that 110 tons of O.U.-certified quinoa will make it onto Passover tables this year, all of which is sold by Pereg Gourmet and Goldbaums.
But not all of Ghoori’s discoveries were as reassuring. Though he was able to offer a definitive stamp of approval as far as quinoa’s kosher status, Ghoori felt the farmers themselves were being exploited unfairly. “The farmers were making bubkes, and the exporters were making all the money on it,” Ghoori said. “Although quinoa was kosher, I felt that something not so kosher was going on.”
The quinoa growers he encountered lived in deep poverty, far from the modern comforts of Lima, Peru’s capital. To survive, some turn to illegally growing the valuable coca plant, which is used to make cocaine. Many others enter the dangerous gold mines that have drawn Peruvians since the days of the Incas. There they endure the threat of mine collapses and the toxic presence of mercury, which is used to extract the gold from rock.
“Just imagine a family of seven [in] one house that measures about 12 feet by 6–7 feet, [with] no electricity, no running water,” said Sandro Monteblanco, a Lima-based attorney who conducts business for foreign food exporters in Peru. “The kids are forced to go into these pits that are full of mercury. Maybe when you go back a year later, two of those kids have already died of cancer. Or maybe somebody offered them $35 to take their 13-year-old into town to sell them into a brothel.”
Growing quinoa has not provided a way out of poverty. Quinoa’s price has skyrocketed in recent years, as foreign consumers have learned more about the health benefits of this superfood, which is gluten-free and contains all the essential amino acids.