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)!!!
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.
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?).
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.
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
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…
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