“To our Sephardim clients,” declared a festive sign taped to a shelf loaded with Passover goods, ”we are delighted to announce that this year we have a very nice selection of products for Ochley Kitniyot” (those who eat legumes during Passover).
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The shelf, in the Kosher Mart supermarket in Rockville, Maryland, was stocked with rows of tahini, peanut butter, rice cakes and popcorn bags, all from the new line of products called Kitni, which caters to those of us who consume legumes during Passover. However, the sign went on to warn that “out of respects to our Ashkenazi clients (Ashkenazi brothers, it said in the Hebrew version) and as required by the Vaad, these products will be removed from the store during Pesach.”
This Passover, for the first time, an American manufacturer is certifying legume products as kosher for Passover for those who consume kitniyot and it’s none other than Manischewitz, the largest manufacturer of kosher food products in the U.S.
"This is a very exciting time for us", said Manischewitz spokeswoman Avital Pessar in a phone interview earlier this week.
Does this exciting moment mean Sephardi Jews in America are finally being recognized for their consumer power, or does it reflect the fact that more Ashkenazi Jews are gradually warming up to the idea of eating legumes on Passover? Probably a bit of both.
The idea of forbidding legumes (kitniyot in Hebrew, a term that traditionally includes rice as well) during Passover is solely Ashkenazi and it dates back to around the 13th century C.E. Sephardi or Mizrahi Jews, mostly from North Africa and the Middle East, typically do eat legumes and rice during Passover.
Yet until this year, no American manufacturer took on the challenge of providing kosher for Passover legume products, until Manischewitz identified the growing Israeli and Mideastern Jewish communities as the target clientele for the new line. "There was a need and no one has responded, and we wanted to make sure we cater to all of our consumers," said Avital.
It was not a natural move for American kashrut certifiers, who have been used to working mainly according to Ashkenazi tradition. Orthodox Union Kosher explained on its website its decision to supervise kitniyot products for Passover by explaining “[Sephardi] Jews who are careful to eat products with reliable supervision all year long were forced to settle for much less than that, using products on Passover that weren’t supervised for the additional stringencies of the holiday.”
But Manischewitz’s important move seems to have caught the Jewish American world unprepared and, at times, confused.
Kosher Mart’s decision to remove all legumes from their shelves during the holiday, for example, sounds like a forced compromise. Kosher supermarkets in Israel, even those under the strictest supervision, have always carried Passover kitniyot products before and during the holiday. According to Chabad’s website, “one is allowed to own and derive benefit from kitniyos, something that is prohibited with true chometz.” And, “one may also keep kitniyos in his house on Pesach without concern that it may be inadvertently eaten.” So why not stock it in the store?
I called a dozen kosher stores to ask if they would be selling the Kitni line of products this Passover. I spoke to stores in Los Angeles (where large communities of Sephardi Jews live, along with many Israelis used to eating kitniyot on Passover) and in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and got the same answer again and again: Our clients do not eat kitniyot and we don't sell them on Passover.
Only one, Mr. Kosher, an Israeli owned market in Los Angeles, had kitniyot, but its products were imported from Israel.
To help prospective Sephardi customers identify with its new line, Manischewitz decorated the Kitni packages with hamsas, a hand-shaped good luck symbol, "all lined up in different ways. It is something that speaks to people from Sephardi background," said Avital. " Hopefully the hamsas can resonate with them." (It might have been more respectful to leave out the hamsa, a controversial symbol of good luck in some Middle Eastern communities, Jewish and Muslim, as for many, this mystic sign is not the way of Judaism.)
Manischewitz does not seek to limit its potential clientele to Sephardi Jews only, but rather to "anyone who connects to that tradition, whether it's Israelis or a more traditional Jew, who finds a cultural heritage within the Sephardi traditions."
And the numbers of Ashkenazi American Jews connecting to this cultural heritage could be on the rise.
From a thorough survey I conducted among six of my friends, I’ve found two Ashkenazi families who added kitniyot to their Passover menu. “I remember when we met once for lunch at Union Station," said my friend Connie, who together with her husband Peter keep kosher for Passover and are vegetarian as well. "All I could order from the menu was French fries, and I said, 'That's it!'" The couple added legumes, rice and polenta to their Passover menu options.
Same with my friends Karen and Jonathan, who decided that if it was good enough for the Sephardim, it was good for them, although they say they won't go out of their way to eat it or buy it.
Others stick to their Ashkenazi tradition. As my friend Miriam put it, “My head knows it's nuts, but my heart likes the feeling of cleaning out my kitchen and eating (more or less) like my grandparents did.” It will be interesting to see how the kitniyot market in America develops in the coming years, with the push of Passover giant Manischewitz.
Green fava and herb rice
For those who consume kitniyot, or ar just curious about what a kitniyot-laden seder table could look like, here’s a recipe that includes two Passover staples for consumers of kitniyot: rice and fava beans. Green fava is in season in early spring, in America as well as in the Middle East, so fava became a must on seder tables in North African and Iraqi families.
The rice in this recipe comes out lemony and sticky, due to the large amount of lemon juice.
Fresh green fava beans are available in some health supermarkets as well as in Middle Eastern supermarkets in the spring. Frozen fava is available year-round in Middle Eastern markets, or you can substitute with fresh or frozen peas or your preferred beans.
¼ cup olive oil
1 yellow onion, chopped
5 garlic cloves, sliced
2 cups Jasmine rice, washed and drained
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
1 bunch parsley, chopped
14 oz. frozen green fava
2½ teaspoons kosher salt
¾ cups freshly squeezed lemon juice
2¼ cups boiling water
Put oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add chopped onion and garlic and sauté, stirring frequently, until onion is golden.
Add rice, mix and sauté for one minute. Add herbs, fava and salt and mix well. Add lemon juice and boiling water, bring to boil, then lower the heat to lowest, cover with lid, and let cook for 5 minutes.
Mix the rice again (the herbs and fava tend to float up, so mix them in), cover and cook for 10 minutes longer or until the rice is ready.
Remove from heat, let sit for 5 minutes and serve.