Mloukhia , an Ancient Egyptian dish

by Sarah on September 11, 2009

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Mloukhia (Corchorus olitorius), in the words of Paula Wolfert is a dish you either “love or love to hate” and I couldn’t agree with her more. Mloukhia’s texture, in polite terms would be described as viscous or mucilaginous but someone who is not accustomed to it might have other ideas.

When my son’s friend came for a visit and looked at the bowl of moulouchia he exclaimed while belly laughing,

“Woa! Your mom made you eat that! It looks like (censored)!!!

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In Claudia Roden’s Middle Eastern Cookbook she says it is an acquired taste and indeed if you have never tasted it before it might be a bit shocking. On the other hand I have met people who describe it in glowing terms such as an Iraqi who fell in love with it and told me “there is nothing like it.” Well, I must agree about that.

Mloukhia originated from Indo-China but it is now popular throughout the Levant with each region boasting a unique version, almost like a culinary identity stamp. Egyptians chop it up finely and add dry crushed coriander. In Damascus red pepper flakes and onions complement the mloukhia.  Jordanians add dry as well as fresh coriander and Israeli Arabs of the Galilee are fond of allspice. Tunisians use this plant in its dried and powdered form where it is often made for the new year, symbolizing luck and good health (via Paula Wolfert).  It is often cooked with chicken, lamb or rabbit. There are even more spelling variations of Mloukhia* than there are ways prepare it perhaps because of regional pronunciations. In English it is also called Jews Mallow because it had become associated with them from ancient and medieval times in part because of Talmudic tradition. It should not be confused with mallow, also an edible plant of the Malvaceae family and called Khubeza in Arabic.

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In Egypt mloukhia is considered the national dish, a simple peasant meal with a history as old as the pharaohs. It is strange then that this much loved Egyptian dish was outlawed by the sixth Caliph of the Fatimid Dynasty, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, 996-1021 (known as the Mad Caliph for a reason). During his reign mloukhia was eaten in clandestine, together with other foods on the forbidden list such as grapes, watercress and even fish with no scales. Perhaps, the eventual disappearance of the Caliph, who left on a journey never to return, may have been connected to the public’s outrage for having their favorite food banned. Perhaps. It is interesting that the Druze, who consider Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah a central figure in their religion, do not eat mloukhia.

I read about Mloukhia for the first time in a Hebrew language Egyptian cookbook and was curious to try it. Since it is not readily available in the regular vegetable markets here I needed to go to an Arab/Israeli shuk such as Lod.  After picking up a big bundle of Mloukhia several Arab and Bedouin woman stopped me, curious to know how I cooked it because I did not look like a Mloukhia type of woman (maybe I look like a bundt cake type of woman?).

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I made Mloukhia for the first time using an Egyptian recipe in which the leaves of the plant are chopped very finely with a makhrata (also called a mazzaluna) and then added to a simmering chicken soup to cook for only a short time. Overcooking or boiling causes the Mloukhia to go out of suspension and coagulate to the bottom of the pot. When the Mloukhia is ready, chopped garlic and coriander are fried in oil and poured over the soup.  In Arabic this sauce is called the Ta’lia (Egypt) or Taklia (Syria, Lebanon), which according to Clifford A. Wright comes from the root word to fry and is similar to Kalia, the Kurdish word for fried meat. Paula Wolfert says it’s the flourish, releasing aromas by heating spices and herbs in oil to create a wonderful flavor boast.

The Egyptian way of making Mloukhia discharges the full sensation of the plant and it was overwhelming. The next time I tried the Syrian way with the Egyptian flavorings where the leaves are either used whole or only partly chopped and cooked in much less water to avoid creating the prized viscous texture not everybody loves. Eaten with rice, this is the way I enjoyed it the most. It has a smell of mowed grass, very earthy yet fresh and different from either spinach or swiss chard.

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Mloukhia

I did not realize I was making a Syrian version of Mloukhia but found out later through a new and informative Syrian food blog. If you want a more authentic recipe I recommend trying his. This recipe uses coriander which isn’t a popular spice in Damascus according The Syrian Foodie.  Mloukhia is rich in betacarotine, iron, calcium and vitamin C. The seeds are considered a purgative.

4 Chicken thighs and drumsticks

700g-1kg of Moulouchia leaves, washed

10 cloves garlic

1 tablespoon dried coriander

Salt/Pepper

Fry Chicken in its own fat until the skin in golden brown preferably in a cast iron skillet. Add half the garlic and fry until just turning color. Add a half a cup of water and the Mloukhia leaves and cook until wilted, mixing to bring fresh leaves to the bottom. Fry the rest of the garlic and coriander in oil until golden brown and pour over the Mloukhia. Serve over white rice.

*Molokhia, Mulikhiya, Molukhia, moulouchia, Mouloukhia, Moulokhia, Melouchia, Mloukhia, the list goes on…

Resources:

Mediterranean Vegetables: a cook’s ABC of vegetables and their preparation, by Clifford A. Wright

Arab Cuisine from the heart of the Galilee, by Miriam Hinnawi (Hebrew)

Cooking from the Nile’s Land, by Levana Zamir (Hebrew)

Jordanian Cookbook, by Lina Chebaro Baydoun and Nada Mosbah Halawani (English)

The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, Paula Wolfert

Melokhia on FoodistaMelokhia

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Miriam/The winter guest September 11, 2009 at 7:04 am

You are brave… and I can’t believe your kids ate it. Indeed it doesn’t look very appetizing, but the same happens to goose barnacles… it’s an acquired thing. I first read about mloukhia in a cookbook I bought at the British Museum that included some Ancient Egypt recipes.

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admin September 12, 2009 at 10:54 am

I wouldn’t say they ate it, more like taste it (like winne the pooh likes to say :-)), even their friend tasted it which I was surprised about. The chicken they liked, but without too much sauce. I will have to lookup goose barnacles, I never heard about that, but it sure has an interesting name.

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Joumana September 12, 2009 at 7:50 pm

I like molookhiya, the way my friend Phoebe who is an Egyptian copt, makes it. she does not add coriander, only fried garlic, and uses fresh leaves, which we found at the Asian market. It turns out the Vietnamese and Philippino use the herb as well. Of course, after I posted the recipe, I got some flak from Lebanse folks to whom making molookhiya without coriander is sheer heresy! Incidentally, my kids love it. I recommend not cooking it more than 30 seconds though.

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Natasha - 5 Star Foodie September 14, 2009 at 6:32 am

I just finished reading a novel about Nefertari last night and would totally love to try this ancient Egyptian specialty right now! Very neat!

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Cmiranda September 14, 2009 at 4:11 pm

Saw a recipe in an Lebanese cookbook calling for Jews Mallow didn’t realize it was also known as melokhia.

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Leslie January 9, 2010 at 9:46 am

My grandmother made me eat this vegetable when I was growing up in the Philippines. I never liked it but maybe I should try again. The recipe looks yummy! :)

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Celeste February 2, 2010 at 10:01 am

Yes, it was prepared for us by an Egyptian cook.
I love greens but like I told you, the way it fell off my spoon when dishing it up made me curious as to what exactly it was.
Very good taste. A simple dish.
I am going to try and find out if it is something I can find here in BC and if not, there is always spinach.
Thanks again.
** I believe it is called the “kings dish”
so any dish fit for a king, sits well with me.

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Daniel February 12, 2010 at 5:58 am

I have Melokhia seeds started (germinated in 4 days) for my Brooklyn roof garden and was very happy to see you using it, this dish looks wonderful.

Yours is the first dish I’ll try with it, I’d also like to give it a try it in a gumbo, it seems to have some of the same properties as sassafras and okra.

Thank you for the information.

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Sarah February 12, 2010 at 6:10 am

let me know how it turns out!

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Bella August 30, 2010 at 11:58 am

Hi Im an American Muslim and i just discovered your blog. Your background is very interesting and it is clear that you are a very respectful woman with a smart head on her shoulders. i love mulukhiya and always have, its flavor really is different from any other, but i think it fantastic!

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Sarah August 30, 2010 at 1:01 pm

thanks Bella, What a kind thing to say

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kasia July 6, 2011 at 6:32 am

i love molokhia and most of my family as well:) the taste is just like anything else.
i was searching for some recepies but really hard to find anything.i cook it same way with chicken and garlic using dry leaves and serve with rice.

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Amanda August 15, 2012 at 8:51 am

I learned how to make this years ago as an exchange student in Egypt. The ladies who cooked it always sauteed sliced onions with the garlic and coriander or with the chicken itself. They also used lamb instead of chicken sometimes. They all used dried chopped leaves. Plus, toward the end of cooking, they stirred in a teaspoon of baking soda which seemed to keep the stew from being too slimy or viscous. When it’s cooked right, it’s a delicious stew; I loved it even though I was kind of a picky eater back then.

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Sarah August 15, 2012 at 8:56 am

Thanks Amanda for the baking soda tip. My FIL swears that the mloukhia he had as a boy, made by his Egyptiain mother, was never slimy. Maybe this is the reason why.

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Amanda September 2, 2012 at 3:38 pm

Sarah, I learned it this way, back in the day (make sure you have a big spoon and a strong spatula): Cover the bottom of a big stew pot (around 8 qt or bigger) with olive oil (probably a half cup+, they were very generous with the olive oil). Bring up to medium/medium-high heat. Add one or two thinly sliced onions and saute. When the onions become translucent and limp add a heaping tablespoon of coriander and 4 to 6 cloves of chopped garlic. Saute together for a few minutes, stirring frequently, until you can smell the garlic “perfuming.” Then add a cut up chicken: 2 drumsticks, 2 thighs, 2 wings, 4 cut breast pieces, the cut up neck, the chopped giblets (rinse out the gizzard first) but throw out the kidneys, they didn’t use the chicken kidneys. Add a spoonful each of salt & pepper. Continue cooking; when the chicken pieces are browned, add the chopped dried mouloukhia (probably 3 to 4 cups or so?), mix it around and sautee for a minute, then add enough water to cover everything by at least an an inch or more. Bring to a low boil for a few minutes (longer if it’s an older hen). Then lower to a simmer. Stir in a spoonful of baking soda (it may foam up, just stir it in). Let it continue to simmer till you are ready to serve it. It was served to me in big bowls along with large round loaves of delicious fresh or warm pita, which we tore into triangles for scooping/sopping up the stew and pulling the meat off the chicken bones. They also ate the cartilage and connective tissue from the chicken bones which they said is good for preventing arthritis and weak joints. They wasted almost nothing consumable. It was served with ful medames (delicious fava beans) and feta cheese. Everything tasted wonderful and I loved every bite. The other thing I remember is not drinking water with our meals but after the meals because it was considered bad manners to fill up on water while eating (well that’s what they told me, hehe).

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Sarah September 2, 2012 at 8:59 pm

Amanda, Thank you for the recipe and the explanation. I want to try your version next time I make Mloukhia. I love the way you decribed the garlic perfuming.

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Amanda September 28, 2012 at 2:40 pm

Sarah, Thinking back, I remember some of the ladies added a couple bouillon cubes and more water to stretch the meal. Plus they added lentils to the beans. Everything was delicious.

Mary Bartlett June 13, 2014 at 3:59 am

Sarah, I certainly enjoyed your article which I discovered while searching for a source of mloukhia (in the form of powder) in the USA. I had this stew in Tunisia and it is indeed very different from the Egyptian one. It is made with beef or veal and the sauce looks like petroleum – i.e. very black and shiny. I had never seen or tasted anything like it – and it was delicious!
Thank you.

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