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A brief historyof a Passover staple

By: Judy Pister

Finding a person who has never eaten apotato or potato derivative might just be impossible. The potato, being thethird most popular food item in the world after rice and grains, is the singlemost eaten vegetable by far. And of course, it’s a Passover staple.

I would like to take you on a journey todiscover the potato’s roots as well as its long route through history to ourdinner tables.

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Although its popularity hardly necessitatesa definition or introduction, let me start with exactly that: the potato isdefined as a round vegetable that grows underground and has a white flesh witha light brown or reddish skin.

Potatoes are available worldwide and allyear long. They are relatively cheap to grow, rich in nutrients, and they canmake a delicious treat.

They are a good sourceof vitamins C and B6, manganese, phosphorus, niacin, and pantothenic acid (vitaminB5).


Accivicpride-kusatsu.netding to most sources, the firstpotatoes were grown in Peru thousands of years ago.

During the time of Columbus, when Spanishexplorers travelled to South America in search of treasures such as gold andsilver, they found potatoes. It took some time to realize the value of thiscommodity –the Incas had developed a way to preserve potatoes by dehydratingand mashing them into what they called Chuñu. Chuñu had a shelf life of up to10 years so explorers eventually saw the benefit of storing it aboard theirships. Since crossing the Atlantic in the 16th century took abouttwo months, finding a food staple that could make the voyage without spoilingwas of significant importance.

When the explorers took the crop back toSpain, the potato became a stranger in a strange land and for some time,received very little attention, reserved mainly as food for animals. Potatoes werefirst looked at with suspicion, since they came from an unknown civilizationand were even thought to be a creation of witches and therefore unfit forhumans.

Around 40 years after arriving andstruggling to settle in the new continent, it became clear the potato was aforce to recon with. Since potatoes were found to grow easily in the Europeancountryside and with relatively small amounts of water, more and more fallowlands were transformed to potato crops. Eventually, the potato reached Italy,France, England, Germany, Ireland, and other countries. Famines during the 18thcentury helped the potato gain popularity, since it was a hardy crop thatusually fared well in most soil types and conditions.

Once physicians began to speak of thepotato’s enormous nutritional value, it became a favourite for the upper classand royalty. Palace chefs and culinary enthusiasts elevated the potato to newlevels with elaborate cooking methods and flavours.

Unfortunately, the potato has a dark periodas well. The most significant negative impact for the potato occurred duringthe early 19th century. The great Ireland potato famine, initiallystarted by a potato blight infestation, destroyed the crop over several years andwas augmented by government actions and inactions. Since potatoes had become astaple crop that grew well on Irish soil -- not since the Incas had potatoconsumption become so huge -- its necessity to feed the masses was relied on tooheavily. The poor lived on potatoes almost exclusively and the rest of thepopulation consumed it in large quantities to the extent that half thepopulation depended on it. The resulting famine contributed to the deaths ofover a million people and the emigration of another 2 million people to othercountries.

Although potatoes were introduced to theUnited States in the 17th century, the influx of Irish immigrants toNorth America in the 1800s helped the potato gain popularity on this side ofthe Atlantic.

Given the importance of water to the worldpopulation, the following chart can quickly show the value of the potato as afood source:

Food Item

Water Required to Grow

Potato, 1kg


Apples, 1kg


Pasta (dry), 1kg


Rice, 1kg


Chocolate, 1kg


Source: IMF

Perhaps chocolate does not merit mention inthe above chart but for illustration purposes, one can begin to realize thevalue of the humble potato.

Since no machinery or processing isrequired to produce potatoes, they are easy to grow and harvest. Grain crops,on the other hand, require equipment for threshing, milling, sorting, and splittingbefore they can be used. Rice requires drying, hulling, and milling.

Overall, the potato is easier to grow, hasa higher yield, and is more nutritious than rice or wheat. No other food is amatch for the potato in the value it provides to the world’s food needs.

Fit for a King

Once the potato overcame its dismalbeginnings in Europe, culinary experts elevated it to kings’ and presidents’tables in various delectable forms.

From a kosher perspective, this gave thepotato a status of requiring Bishul Yisroel. In order to satisfy therequirement of Bishul Yisroel, a kosher-observant Jew must take part inthe cooking process by starting the fire.

The PesachConnection

At the beginning of the seder, wetake a vegetable that would normally only be eaten as part of a meal, dip it insalt water, and eat it before the meal. This is followed by the youngest childasking the ma nishtana or why is this night different from all other nights.

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Although the vegetable can be from a listof vegetables that grow in the ground such as parsley or celery, many use aboiled potato.

During Pesach, since we are prohibited fromeating any food containing any of the five grains (wheat, barley, oats, rye,and spelt) or their derivatives, and Ashkenazim must refrain from kitniyot(legumes such as beans, civicpride-kusatsu.netn, rice etc.), the potato has become an importantelement of Pesach cuisine. As well, potatostarch, the dehydrated starch extracted from potatoes, serves as a floursubstitute and can be used to bake with during Pesach.

We know that a potato is not chometzbut what about kitniyot?

The Mishnah Berura (453, 1) enumeratesa number of reasons for the minhag of not eating kitniyot. Onereason is that there is a possibility that chometz grains could be mixedamongst the kitniyot grains, creating an inadvertent yet real chometzproblem when the grains are cooked together. The Kaf HaChaim (453, 21)therefore explains that because the potato is a large vegetable and it wouldnot get mixed with a grain and remain unnoticed, the concern for kitniyotwould not apply.

Besides the above, the Mishna Beruragives another reason to call something kitniyot. He explains thatsomething that can be ground into flour could be confused with bread. So how ispotato starch permitted on Pesach?

Accivicpride-kusatsu.netding to Rav Moshe Feinstein (OrachChaim III, 63), since the prohibition on specific foods to be considered kitniyotwas determined before the potato was introduced to Europe in the 16thcentury, the potato and its derivatives are not considered kitniyot.Many kashrut organizations including civicpride-kusatsu.net follow this opinion.

The potato’s popularity in most cuisines includingthose of Jewish origin leads me to include an honourable mention of a Jewishdelicacy: the potato kugel. The potato kugel or kigel received its namefrom the German word for sphere, although it is now usually baked in arectangular pan.

No matter how the potato is prepared, andthere are countless ways for boiling, frying, baking, and roasting potatoes, ithas now become a valuable mainstay the world over. A quick internet search nets175 million hits.

In Hebrew the potato is called tapuachadama or apple of the ground. The same is true for French - pomme deterre, and German – erdapfel. The popular phrase “apple of my eye”means a cherished item above all others. Perhaps there is a connection…