In the course of researching this article, I found out two truths about myself. One: I am not a rabbi, and two: thankfully I have no intentions of becoming one.
By now most of us have heard about, seen or tasted quinoa. Pronounced “keen-WAH”, this minute vegetable looks like couscous in size but has the stamp of G-d’s wonder and creation all over it. It cooks like rice, and can take on almost any flavor addition like rice and pasta, but it feels and tastes a lot like a carbohydrate side dish.
Here’s where the rabbis come in. Being a leaf and not a grain, and armed with the fervent hope that “pasta-like” quinoa may actually be kosher for Pesach, I was all aquiver. I called a few local and not-so-local rabbis, and they all said the same thing: “Ask your local rabbi.” It turns out that getting an “OK” for quinoa use on Pesach is only slightly less elusive than sharing a single malt with Loch Ness monster.
My Local Rabbi said, “it’s a go” with some restrictions on how and when it is checked, but as I said, I’m no rabbi, nor do I take responsibility for anyone’s action before, during or even after Pesach.
Quinoa actually has more to do with Pesach than just its “eat or don’t eat” status. Quinoa is one of G-d’s many miracles and relates beautifully to the Pesach story. The quinoa leaf, which has grown in the Andes for the last 4,000 to 5,000 years, can grow in the harshest of climates and poorest of soils. It thrives in the freezing cold nights and boiling days that make the peaks of the Andes a strictly non-tourist zone. Soil only needs minimal moisture and quinoa can grow at the highest elevations. Its nutritional value is also staggering. Quinoa has got it all; I mean it has the full package. Another disclaimer: I’m not a nutritionist, but considering that NASA is looking into quinoa’s ability to sustain astronauts in space over long periods of time, it’s got to be good!
Prior to the advent of the Spanish conquistadors, the people of the Upper Andes were hardy and healthy. Within ten years of the conquistadors landing on the west coast of South America, the native population had lost a third of its number and the infant mortality rate had doubled. What happened? Upon arriving in South America, the conquistadors found a culture that not only subsisted on quinoa, but also worshiped it. After harvest, there would be celebrations, followed by sacrifices.
The conquistadors recognized that it was a pagan culture when they saw them. Christianity was enforced and quinoa was out. They “religiously” replaced the Andeans’ quinoa, which had been a food staple and a remedy to treat almost everything from a sore toe to bronchitis, with the potato, and the natives began succumbing to disease. But at the very top of the Andes where quinoa grew wild, the grain remained happily feeding a few, until the late 1970s when two Americans studying in South America heard about the miracle, grain-leaf and imported it. It has taken close to 30 years, but today quinoa has become mainstream.
Despite thousands of years of displacement, the Jews’ first journey as a people was through the desert, and G-d ensured our survival with manna. How similar was manna to quinoa? I think of quinoa as the Andean form of manna minus the overt miracle: a foodstuff that grows in the harshest conditions, where just a pound of seeds can harvest a whole acre, grow wild if not cultivated, and containing within it, all the nutrition necessary to survive. My only wonder was, when the Andean people complained that there was no meat, was it the llamas that were sent to pacify them?
This Pesach, while considering G-d’s miracles large and small, quinoa is one of the smallest, but its impact is tremendous.
Quinoa With Caramelized Onions And Pine Nuts
1 cup quinoa
2 cups water
3 large onions, thinly sliced
3 tbsp. olive oil
½ cup pine nuts
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tbsp. fresh parsley, chopped
Using a fine sieve, rinse quinoa under cold running water until the water runs clear.
In a medium saucepan, add rinsed quinoa and water.
Bring water to a boil, lower heat and simmer until quinoa is softened and translucent, about 15 minutes.
As the quinoa is cooking, prepare the onions: In a large frying pan, heat oil and add onions. Sauté over medium heat until onions start to turn golden.
In a separate frying pan toast the pine nuts. Be careful as they can burn easily.
Combine cooked quinoa, sautéed onions and toasted pine nuts. Season to taste and add chopped parsley just before serving.