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.
But middlemen based in Lima buy the product from growers for a low price and sell it to exporters who — after processing the grain and removing its bitter shell — sell it on the international market for a hefty profit.
“I would see folks with bags of 100 pounds come back with $2.50,” Monteblanco said. “They had a gold mine on their backs, but it wasn’t for them.”
Just as Ghoori was becoming concerned about the quinoa growers, he met Julianna and Pablo Lopez, a socially conscious wife and husband working in Lima’s quinoa industry. They wanted quinoa farmers to earn higher profits by exporting directly to international markets.
Ghoori joined their effort, leveraging his contacts in the kosher food industry to find buyers for the farmers’ exports. Ghoori said that at his prodding, a local investor signed on and in 2013 opened the Bio-Andes processing plant high in Puno, an Andean town. At this plant, local farmers are able to prepare their quinoa for purchase without selling to a middleman, and so they earn a much higher profit.
“Shoshan was the one who opened the floor to us to export to the U.S.,” said Julianna Lopez, founder of Dual Peru Exports, which also directly exports quinoa on behalf of local farmers. “The idea was to help these farmers, to open the market.”
Ghoori met with local leaders and growers and claims he opened their eyes to the real value of their crop and helped convince them to use the new processing facility.
Today, Ghoori and Monteblanco believe that the direct export model is spreading. Four new farmer-run companies have opened in the Andes, and farmers expect higher prices for their grain.
The growers “became aware that there was a market out there,” Monteblanco said. “It’s generating what I think is going to be a business model for other areas of agriculture to follow.”
In a reassuring twist for Passover consumers, Lopez’s company is the only one that has earned kosher for Passover certification so far, according to Ghoori. So all the quinoa approved by the O.U. for the holiday was sold under the direct export model championed by Ghoori.
Ghoori said he is dedicated to helping poor farmers and businessmen find markets for their products. When he learned that Peruvian wool producers were having difficulty finding a market for their products, he invited Uruguayan wool experts to train the Peruvians in more sophisticated production methods.
He also helped the Cashibo-Cacataibo, an impoverished Amazonian tribe, find Peruvian businesses willing to buy their plantains and palm oil. Ghoori said some of the help he offered the Cashibo-Cacataibo was theological. The tribe, which Ghoori said decided to make him an honorary member, had told him about its struggles to find a way to preserve its identity in 21st-century Peru, and was fascinated by his acceptance of modernity and Orthodox Judaism. “My message to them is to not give up what’s sacred to them,” he said. “You can live in the modern world and be religious and keep your customs.”
Ghoori has had many adventures, and he likes to tell them quickly and excitedly. Though he won’t reveal the details, he says he was also very involved in efforts to free Jacob Ostreicher, a Haredi businessman who was arrested in 2011 in Bolivia. Ostreicher escaped to the United States under mysterious circumstances last December. Ghoori said he isn’t discussing the episode, out of respect for Ostreicher’s wishes. But he added that he will avoid traveling to Bolivia in the near future.
Ghoori attributes his curiosity about the world to his childhood, when he grew up as a Yemenite among Eastern European Haredim in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn. He practiced customs different from those of his Ashkenazi neighbors, and also endured bullying and racial epithets. “I kind of felt for many years like an outsider because of my skin color,” he said. After he began working in Chile in the early 1990s, his mind opened even further. He said that when “you leave the country, you see everything with different eyes. It definitely turned me into the more open-minded person I am today. I’m not your typical frum Brooklyn kid. I’m definitely out of the box.”