The Incredible Journey of Corchorus Olitorius

by Sarah on July 4, 2010

Deep in tropical Africa families ate a nutritious and filling stew from a plant known today as ewedu.  Little would they know that this would be the last connection with their homeland before slave traders shipped them away as prized commodities. The slaves carried with them the tiny seeds of Corchorus Olitorius, a plant that sustained them for centuries and would continue to do so in their Diaspora. Along the human chattel lines this modest flower flourished, perhaps symbolizing how African societies could have thrived if they were left alone. The depredation of Africa continued across the continent as the slave trade broadened its ugly hold. Indigenous societies were being destroyed before they had a chance to fully develop and for many this plant was the last vestige of a culture which would all but disappear.

mloukhia

From the Jungles of Africa to Egypt’s National Dish

Mloukhia as it is known  in Egypt has grown there for so long it has become a quintessential Egyptian green. What started as a plant introduced by slaves became the preferred food of the highest echelons of society and it is said even the Pharaoh himself. As the pendulum swings, in modern times it is again the simple food of peasant farmers and is considered by many Egypt’s national dish.

Interestingly, during the reign of the mad Fatimid Caliph, al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah, Mloukhia became illegal along with a long list of other prohibitions. It was treated much like cocaine or marihuana and anyone caught with this contraband would be harshly punished. This is ironic considering how nutritious Mloukhia is,  high in vitamin C and B, beta-carotene, magnesium and iron. It is also beneficial in controlling symptoms of diabetes and high cholesterol.

meloukhia

From Africa and Beyond

With trade, migration and exploration Mloukhia found its way across the globe and became an important agricultural product in India and adjacent countries. Unlike Egypt it was not grown as an edible plant but to produce burlap, a fabric made from jute fibers of C. Olitorius. It adapted incredibly well to the hot climate of Asia and became an important economic crop. Since the introduction of nylon and polypropylene, burlap lost a large share of the market. However, renewed interest in biodegradable fibers for such uses as erosion control has once again increased international sales of this product.

Mloukhia and the Western Palate

It is considered a much loved dish in many parts of the world including the Levant, Philippines and even Japan, where they use it for medicinal tea. Jews of Sephardic heritage are also very fond of mloukhia as the name Jew’s mallow indicates. In the United States, and other western nations, mlouhkia is unknown except within certain communities.

It’s mucilaginous texture, highly prized by some, is often disliked by those who have never encountered it before.  It is described in terms that are not common in cookery books and better fitted to the medical lexicon.

Coming from the United States, I tasted Mloukhia for the first time several years ago and it did not disappoint. It was more viscous than I ever thought possible in a vegetable. Research has indicated that the plant component producing the texture may have uses as a food additive much the same way guar gum is used today.

Mloukhia and Sustainablity

Mloukhia is an important local crop in Africa, the Middle East and a few Asian countries and should not be replaced by introduced species. It continues to be grown or harvested in many areas of Africa where it is easily grown without the need for intensive agricultural intervention. Its high nutritional profile and ease of growth makes it an ideal plant to grow in its indigenous area or climates compatible to it. Sustainable agriculture is based on using local plants for preserving not only the ecology but the culture tied with it.

In addition, there are areas where this plant grows abundantly in the wild but neglected as an edible crop. In these cases, education may help to increase food sources with a minimum of effort and finance.

meloukhia ravioli

Mloukhia Ravioli Experiment

Mloukhia is an acquired taste which I have not yet achieved. The traditional way of preparing it is as a soup or cooked together with lamb. Here is another way inspired by Cafe Liz’s sweet potato and mloukhia ravioli. I used egg pasta consisting of 3 cups duram bread flour and 2 cups fine semolina flour. The filling consisted of a mixture of cooked mloukhia that had been squeezed dried of moisture mixed with feta and kashkaval cheese. I made a simple olive oil sauce with garlic, chili pepper and crushed coriander. The result did not mask the texture of the mloukhia. As I am extremely impatient with picky eaters who are reluctant to try new things, it annoys me to no end that I have not been able to overcome the mloukhia hurdle.

meloukhia ravoli

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Liz@Cafe Liz July 4, 2010 at 4:53 pm

Interesting piece, Sarah! I think my ravioli didn’t have a moloukhiyeh texture because I used less filling inside each piece of pasta. Although I have to say, yours look lovely, it’s a pity you didn’t like them.

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Yael July 4, 2010 at 11:13 pm

What a beautiful and informative post. Too bad i can’t stand the taste of this herb because the r ravioli look amazing.

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kano July 5, 2010 at 6:58 am

Very interesting. I love the idea of Mulokhiyeh Raviolli! I need to try these myself. I have been looking for some imaginative ways to use Mulokhiyeh for a while but to use it in pasta simpoly didn’t cross my mind.

Well done on agreat idea Liz!

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Sarah July 7, 2010 at 12:09 pm

thanks everyone, I think I will give Mloukhia a rest for awhile until my next experiment :-)

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OysterCulture July 11, 2010 at 3:58 pm

Wow, this one is new to me and I’m looking forward to seeing if I can find it here in the Bay Area, thanks so much for sharing!

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franklinruiz August 9, 2010 at 8:55 pm

does anyone know where I can purchase Melokhiya plants live?
thanks,
Franklin
franklinruiz1@yahoo.com

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Sarah April 20, 2012 at 8:03 am

I really do not know but perhaps it might be easier to find a seed company and try to grow them.

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sharon adawin February 25, 2011 at 3:39 am

I have been trying to find out what Hawerna is in English. This green is used with yogurt and is quite bitter. In the past 3 years I have started seeing it sold in the supermarkets. Have you heard of this one?

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Emiekagbon Jeffery February 25, 2011 at 5:40 am

I dont know if anyone can mention other africa country that uses Corchorus olitorius making african dish apart from Nigeria.

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Cyrus macFoy July 7, 2011 at 8:56 pm

In Sierra Leone, Corchorus olitorius is also used to produce a popular vegetable dish.

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Sarah April 20, 2012 at 8:07 am

Thanks Cyrus, I didn’t know that

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Laura July 29, 2011 at 3:04 pm

I have never eaten it solo, only as part of Greenoodle Ramen Noodles. http://greenoodles.com/ Can’t really taste it in them, and the noodles aren’t viscous or anything. They taste like regular ramen noodles, but with a slightly green taste in the background. I came upon your site trying to find out more about this plant. Interesting about the slimy nature, I didn’t know about that. The noodles are really quite good, there are 6-7 flavors. I eat a package of it as a nutritious way to eat a quick low-calorie lunch.

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Suzy December 8, 2011 at 11:35 am

Wonderful post, just great. I was reading up on Jew’s mallow in Sonia Uvezian’s book “Recipes and Remembrances from an Eastern Mediterranean Kitchen” but wanted more information.
Have you ever had it cooked for you by an Egyptian? It’s delicious. I can’t eat things like creamed spinach because it makes me gag but love this stuff!

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Sarah December 8, 2011 at 11:39 am

Thanks Suzy, My husband’s grandmother is Egyptian but I never had the chance to taste her Mloukhia. I was told that what I made came nothing close.

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Laura April 17, 2012 at 6:30 pm

Wow…not like molokhia? I’m in New Orleans and had my first introduction to it through a Tunisian friend. It tasted so good and so nutritious, I tracked down the dried leaves at an international market and came up with my own version (a cross between Tunisian and Egyptian styles). I’m going to try to grow it myself this year. Its viscous properties are great in a stew…it reminds me of a bright green gumbo (which also gains some thickness with the viscous okra). The Tunisians eat it as very finely ground powder….I get close by using a blender on dried leaves.
Here’s my recipe (and my Tunisian friend gave it his stamp of approval):
1/2 to 1 pound meat–cubed 1″ (use lamb, beef, or chicken, etc.)
2 + 3 (for a total of 5) tablespoons lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste
Olive Oil
4 cups water
1 onion, chopped
1/4 cup crushed garlic
1 tsp ground coriander
10 tablespoons finely ground dry molokhia (I use a blender to grind dry leaves)
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1 French baguette

Sautee meat in olive oil until juices evaporate and meat browns a bit. Add onion, garlic, salt, pepper, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, and coriander. Sautee until onion is soft. Add 4 cups of water. Cover and simmer on low for about 1 hour, until meat is very tender. Add dried molokhia and lightly boil until quite thick. Add cilantro and 3 tablespoons lemon juice. Cook a few minutes longer. Serve in a bowl and scoop stew with torn pieces of fresh french bread. Yum!

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steph August 31, 2012 at 1:21 am

You made my day. I love mouloukheya. I’ve lived in Egypt, Syria and Tunisia and tasted the 3 recipes. The Egyptian one, a viscous soup, which people are usually not fond of because pf the texture, is my favorite. The Tunisian one, as a comment mentionned it before is dried leaves reduced in powder . The Syrian uses whole dried leaves and cook it with meat, garlic, olive oil, adding some water.
I know how to do it the Egyptian way. Frozen molokheya is easy to find in Egypt, and maybe its available abroad. Its almost as good as the fresh leaves, but the process of chopping the leaves on a big metal plate with a mezzaluna is a great experience in itself. It is strange for me that this plant cannot be found in Europe. I met one Italian man in Rome, who was born in Egypt in the 50s (a large Italian community existed in the middle east). His grandmother brought molokheya when they left and was still cultivating it in his garden. I guess some others small molokheya hidden islands exist in South of Europe….

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NaijaGirl March 5, 2013 at 7:29 pm

I just love ewedu! I didn’t even know it had a Latin name which I just googled and found this lovely (though slightly condescending) post. African Jungles? Um ok….

Well while living in the “jungles” I enjoyed this dish. Aka Ewedu. It’s delicious and an excellent detoxifier! I was looking for more information on its nutritional profile. I know gel-like foods or foods that draw are good detoxifiers and the way we cook it, it’s one of the rare African/Nigerian dishes that aren’t over cooked! I just love it and I hope there are more posts on nutrition of African food..

By the way, quiet as its kept, Egypt is in Africa…… :-/

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Helen May 24, 2013 at 5:13 am

I have just bought fresh Corchorus olitorius in Rye Lane, Peckham, SE15 London. You can generally buy it in some of the shops and stalls. Friday and Saturday is a good day. I think I have eaten it in Ghana although there are other greens too so I may not have! In fact I bought it to draw (long story) as well as eat and so thanks for this article and useful comments. I’ll be having a go at cooking it this week end.

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Abi from Ghana June 13, 2013 at 9:22 am

Yes, this vegetable is very well known in West Africa. In Ghana it’s known as Ayoyo and is indigenous to the northern part of the country… although it’s eaten all over. It’s usually cooked as a sauce; then served with a tomato based stew (with meat and/or fish) and eaten with a staple such as Tuo Zaafi (TZ) ~ which is maize based. It’s prepared in a similar manner to how it’s prepared in Nigeria (Ewedu) although eaten with a different staple. I have eaten it in both countries and it’s delicious! Perhaps an aquired taste for western palates though.

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Sarah June 19, 2013 at 9:09 pm

Thanks Abi for your informative comment. I would love to visit Ghana and neighboring countries to try the ayoyo and to see it grow in the wild. In Israel it’s a rather rare plant so must be grown commercially to supply the demand.

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