Around this time every year, you'll notice big displays at the supermarket piled high with matzo, gefilte fish, macaroons, and other items labeled "Kosher for Passover." But for the uninitiated, what does that actually mean?
The Meaning of Kosher
Kosher foods are foods that meet Jewish dietary laws. These laws forbid the eating of certain items like pork and shellfish and consuming meat and dairy products together. Some foods, like meats and poultry, also need to be slaughtered using specific rules. All of these items are labeled and supervised by a specially trained Rabbinical authority.
Kosher for Passover
During Passover, these law still hold true, but additional laws are added to them for the entirety of the week-long holiday. "Food rules get a lot stricter on Passover because for a whole week, grains like wheat, oats, spelt, barley, and rye are not allowed," says Leah Koenig, author of Modern Jewish Cooking.
Collectively these items are called chametz. That not only means bread, pastries, and pasta aren't permitted, but also beer and most alcohol is out of the question. Only wine that is labeled Kosher for Passover is acceptable, which means the wine is fermented without coming into contact with chametz whatsoever and has been monitored rigorously.
Where Matzo Fits In
Matzo, the unleavened bread consumed during Passover, has historical and religious significance. "Matzo is eaten because it's prescribed to do so," says Tami Weiser, the writer behind The Weiser Kitchen. "The story told at the Seder, the ritual feast that begins Passover, is that of the ancient Isrealities' struggle and journey for freedom. When the Israelites fled Egypt they left before the bread had time to rise. Matzo is eaten in remembrance of that flatbread, and is mandatory at the Seder for everyone. Matzo sustained them during their exodus. Matzo, a cracker in essence, is the root of all of the unleavening rules."
More matzo intel: 7 Ways to Eat Matzo When You're Sick of It
The Lifting of an 800-Year-Old Ban
"From there, depending on which kind of Jew you are, you may adhere to even more rules." Some Jews, particularly Ashkenazi, who hail from Eastern Europe, have historically avoided legumes, beans, rice, corn, and other grain-like foods, collectively know as kitniyot" says Koenig. In America, a large majority of Jewish people are Ashkenazi, so for many, these rules have also applied.
However, in a landmark change issued just this year, an 800-year-old ban on rice and beans for Passover was lifted. This means that the majority of American Jews have newfound freedoms, but only time will tell the effect on heritage recipes and family customs.
The Kosher-for-Passover Symbols You Need to Know
"Any food that has a Kosher for Passover symbol follows the regular kosher laws, but also does not contain any of the week-long forbidden grains," says Koenig. Foods that reflect the new lift on rice and beans are available on the market from brands like Manischewitz, the largest producer of processed kosher products in the United States, under the label Kitni.
There are a whole slew of certifying agents that label food as such, but two of the most common symbols feature either a K or a U in a circle with the letter P to the right of the circle. The P can also refer to pareve, a food that's prepared without meat or dairy or its products. Seeing that on the label of a particular food or wine often signifies that it's OK to consume over Passover, but the words "Kosher for Passover" are clearest.