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.
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.
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.
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.