An Oral History of Mouloukhiya from Egypt, Palestine, Tunisia and Japan.

 

Nevine Abra­ham’s Egypt­ian-style mouloukhiya.

 

Mouloukhiya—a green leaf once banned as a food limited to kings, today reigns in women’s cuisines.

 

By Fadi Kattan with Nevine Abraham, Boutheina Bensalem & Ryoko Sekiguchi

 

Mouloukhiya is derived from a plant whose Latin name is cor­cho­rus oli­tori­ius (pic­tured here), and is also known as “Jew­’s mal­low,” “tossa jute,” “bush okra,” “krinkrin,” “etinyung,” and “West African sor­rel,” among many oth­er local names. It is a species of shrub in the fam­i­ly Mal­vaceae. The jute stems are used in the pro­duc­tion of tex­tiles, while the leaves and young fruits are used as a veg­etable, the dried leaves are used for tea and as a soup thick­en­er, and the seeds are edible.

Mouloukhiya, that mag­ic ver­dure, hat­ed or loved across the shores of the south­ern and east­ern Mediter­ranean, is an abun­dant green herb that often ends up in a stew with vary­ing con­sis­ten­cies and a long his­to­ry of con­flict. We hear words in a mul­ti­tude of dialects such as warak willa na’ma? (leaves or chopped) Basal o khal willa basal o leimoun? (onions and vine­gar or onions and lemon?) ring­ing in con­ver­sa­tions about this divine stew…but to the eyes of the unini­ti­at­ed, mouloukhiya looks like a deep green stew that is vis­cous and many times repul­sive. Why do we cel­e­brate it to an extent that it becomes cult like!

We are tak­ing you on a jour­ney on the shores of the Mediter­ranean and beyond to explore the dif­fer­ent tra­di­tions and rela­tions to mouloukhiya. The voic­es of Nevine Abra­ham, Egypt­ian in Pitts­burgh, Boutheina Ben­salem, Tunisian in Lon­don and Ryoko Segikushi, Japan­ese in Paris join Chef Fadi Kat­tan, Pales­tin­ian in Beth­le­hem to take you on this mouloukhiya journey.

NEVINE—At 26, I made molokhia, my favorite child­hood dish, for the first time by myself. And I let it boil and boil.

Until I left my par­ents’ house, I was a mere spec­ta­tor and admir­er of the females in my fam­i­ly, my nan­ny includ­ed, con­tend­ing that they pos­sess the secret to prepar­ing the best molokhia. To them, “best” did not con­note fla­vor but rather con­sis­ten­cy, name­ly not allow­ing it to over boil so as not to let the chopped leaves drop in the bot­tom of the pot, a sign of a failed attempt per Egypt­ian culi­nary standards.

At least, this is what the Caireen females I knew had taught me. Until one day my Alexan­dri­an moth­er-in-law watched atten­tive­ly as I pre­pared it. “Let it boil. It must cook,” she told me. “Shouldn’t I …” “No, it must boil for a while.” A novice in the kitchen, I had to con­sent. The extra boil turned it deep green and less slimy and, to my sur­prise, it tast­ed as good as a short-boiled one. At this moment, I real­ized that debat­ing its con­sis­ten­cy con­sti­tut­ed an inte­gral part of the tra­di­tion of its prepa­ra­tion, at least in our household.

Boutheina’s Tunisian mouloukhya.

BOUTHEINA—In Tunisia the leaves are sun-dried and ground to a fine pow­der. The com­mon rule is one spoon per per­son plus always an extra spoon­ful in case a guest shows up. Tunisian cui­sine being a gen­er­ous one, peo­ple usu­al­ly add a lot of extra spoons to share with friends and neighbors. 

Rather than a soup, Tunisian mouloukhya is pre­pared with olive oil to a thick sauce with chunks of beef meat or mut­ton and in some regions with camel meat. 

The ingre­di­ents involved vary from region to region, from house­hold to house­hold but gar­lic, bay leaf and Tabel spices are the com­mon ones. Some add arti­sanal haris­sa. In some places we still have the tra­di­tion of cook­ing mouloukhya over a kanun — clay brasero — which gives it an incom­pa­ra­ble taste. 

Once cooked it is served with prefer­ably warm home­made bread fla­vored with nigel­la seeds and fen­nel seeds. The fla­vors are com­plex, the meat is ten­der and fon­dante. It is an incred­i­ble expe­ri­ence to have at least once in your life. 

RYOKO—As sur­pris­ing as it may seem, mouloukhiya exists in Japan too. Pro­nounced “moro­heiya” with a Japan­ese into­na­tion, it arrived in our coun­try in the 1980s. I still remem­ber the adverts prais­ing it as “the secret of longevi­ty and the favorite veg­etable of Cleopa­tra”! And that is from the Japan­ese, who say we are the guardians of the secrets of long life…

This veg­etable was very quick­ly adapt­ed by the Japan­ese, who start­ed cul­ti­vat­ing it local­ly, and today we find it every­where, even in super­mar­kets, at a very afford­able price.

FADI—Across Pales­tine, mouloukhiya is pre­pared dif­fer­ent­ly, from the chopped tra­di­tion served with rice to the whole leave tra­di­tion served with bread. Then come the sub­til­i­ties, with meat? with chick­en? with rab­bit? And the fine details that are game chang­ers, are the tashsha gar­lic or gar­lic and corian­der; do you place a toma­to in the stew to remove the vis­cos­i­ty or do you leave it? In Um Al Fahem, mouloukhiya is cooked whole and served with khobz, bread, to dip in; in Jeri­cho, it is chopped and cooked with gen­er­ous amounts of chili and gar­lic; in Jerusalem and Beth­le­hem, it is cooked either whole or chopped with lamb meat or chick­en and served with chopped onion in vine­gar and chopped onion in lemon juice. 

And the essen­tial ques­tion, do you cook mouloukhiya only in sea­son? Do you dry it? Or do you suc­cumb to moder­ni­ty and freeze it? For me, the dry and fresh mouloukhiya are two dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences, each rich in fla­vors and cre­at­ing two dif­fer­ent mem­o­ries: one of the cel­e­bra­tion of sum­mer and the oth­er, a win­ter stew cooked with a com­bi­na­tion of the nos­tal­gia of sun­shine and the smell of the mouneh room (pantry where all pro­duce were stored and where the smell of the dried mouloukhiya would reign).

Fadi’s Pales­tin­ian mouloukhiya.

BOUTHEINA—The sto­ry behind Mouloukhya is full of leg­ends, mys­te­ri­ous pow­ers and a bit of mag­ic. While the use of this veg­etable in food prepa­ra­tion dates back to Ancient Egypt, the first descrip­tion of mouloukhya as a mir­a­cle super­food fit for kings stems from a strange sto­ry root­ed in the late 10th-cen­tu­ry Fatimid dynasty. 

Leg­end has it that a soup made of mouloukhya leaves nursed back to health an eccen­tric and cru­el Caliph who then pro­hib­it­ed its con­sump­tion by the mass­es because of its sup­posed aphro­disi­ac prop­er­ties. The Druze who believe that the Caliph is a divine rein­car­na­tion do not eat mouloukhya to this day. 

Whilst the leafy plant was the pre­rog­a­tive of kings back then — the name orig­i­nates from the ara­bic mulukia  or “which belongs to the roy­als” — mouloukhya is nowa­days a sta­ple in many Mid­dle East and North African cuisines.

NEVINE—There is more to cou­pling rice/freekah and bread with molokhia. It is a prac­tice ingrained in the com­mon Egypt­ian con­sump­tion of a high amount of car­bo­hy­drates, espe­cial­ly bread or aysh, due to its fill­ing nature, which reflects the country’s socio-econ­o­my. The Egypt­ian government’s sub­sidy of aysh, syn­ony­mous for “to live,” alludes to its impor­tance for the population’s liveli­hood. In a coun­try where 26.1% earn $3.20 a day (2017–2018), local­ly-grown molokhia in the fer­tile Nile Val­ley and eco­nom­ic dish­es like falafel, koshari, and foul medames are sta­ples of Egypt­ian cui­sine. Con­trary to mod­ern times, molokhia stands in ancient his­to­ry as a roy­al dish, draw­ing to its Ara­bized name mulukiya or “roy­al­ty,” in ref­er­ence to the pharaohs’ con­sump­tion of the plant, which some call “food of the kings” due to its “cura­tive pow­ers.” Fatimid Caliph Al Hakim Bin Amr Allah’s (996‑1021) edicts and bans on cer­tain foods includ­ed the green plant in 1004 either because of its claimed aphro­disi­ac effect (as it increas­es the blood flow) or because he loved it too much that he want­ed to keep it to him­self. Some sources assign molokhia an even more diverse back­ground: accord­ing to The Oxford Com­pan­ion to Food, “it is some­times called Jew’s mal­low,” allud­ing to the Egypt­ian Jews’ con­sump­tion of the mal­low plant men­tioned in the Book of Job. Minor­i­ty Copts adopt­ed the gam­bari (shrimp) bil molokhia ver­sion to their fast­ings that allow seafood. 

RYOKO—It has been more than 30 years that moro­heiya is part of our veg­eta­bles. We often pre­pare it Japan­ese style: we blanche it, place it over a bowl of rice, and pour a bit of soja sauce or some dashi. Its vis­cous tex­ture does not both­er us as not for­eign to Japan­ese cui­sine: nat­to (fer­ment­ed soja), ground yam… We may even say that it is thanks to this elas­tic tex­ture that mouloukhiya is liked by the Japanese.

Mouloukhiya pow­der.

FADI—When I remem­ber mouloukhiya, I have this mem­o­ry of a dark room where I could smell the dried mouloukhiya but I still can­not remem­ber if it was in Sido Nakhleh’s house or Teta Julia’s house, or maybe both. And yet I remem­ber the serv­ing of the mouloukhiya, in a cel­e­bra­to­ry cer­e­mo­ny, with the right soupière for the stew, the long dish for the rice, the small bowls for the top­pings and then the soup plates, the gen­er­ous spoons and then the hap­py head­shake from every­one around the table when asked if they want­ed sec­onds. I also remem­ber Khadra, a woman who worked at my grandfather’s place, sit­ting with my great aunts Vic­to­ria and Regi­na, clean­ing the mouloukhiya off its stems, on the ter­race over­look­ing Beth­le­hem. I also remem­ber when my aunt May, from Gaza, taught me the love of green chilies, served next to the mouloukhiya and the sound of the crunch­ing when you bite into one, the mix­ture of fla­vors, the quite earthy mouloukhiya, the rice, the acid­i­ty of the lemon and the vivid­i­ty of the chili scent. As much as I enjoy cook­ing mouloukhiya, I have to con­fess, that when I want to enjoy mouloukhiya, I ask my moth­er to pre­pare it. Her mouloukhiya ren­ders the ini­tial Ara­bic sense of a roy­al dish to the utmost, the fresh corian­der and the gar­lic, the fried bread, the wise dosage of the stew, is like no other.

BOUTHEINA—In Tunisia mouloukhya leaves live up to their name and are indeed the Queen spe­cial­ty of Tunisian gastronomy. 

There is a tan­gi­ble feel­ing of mag­ic in the air sur­round­ing mouloukhya in Tunisian food cul­ture. Tra­di­tion­al­ly pre­pared on the first day of the new year, Rass al ‘Am, it is indeed believed that it will bring abun­dance, pros­per­i­ty and good for­tune. Mouloukhya is a very spe­cial dish cooked to cel­e­brate hap­py events (farah), may it be a new­born or a pro­mo­tion. Main­ly cooked for spe­cial occa­sions only and from time to time when she is missed, mouloukhya is as refined as revered by Tunisians. 

The rit­u­als around the cook­ing itself are quite mys­te­ri­ous. The skills and expe­ri­ence of the cook mat­ter of course to mas­ter this dish of con­nois­seur. There are oth­er forces at play, elu­sive ones. 

It is believed that the evil eye ruins the dish. So one of the gold­en rules is that once you put the lid on “she” must remain undis­turbed dur­ing cook­ing time, check­ing it as lit­tle as possible. 

FADI—Used to our Pales­tin­ian mouloukhiya and its dec­li­na­tions, I have to admit, the first time faced with a Tunisian plate of mouloukhiya, I was dum­found­ed. Silence! Look­ing into this thick dark soup and try­ing to under­stand! I had seen vari­a­tions, the Sudanese ver­sion, quite close to the Egypt­ian but served with an unleav­ened bread, the Niger­ian Yoru­ba ver­sion, Ewe­du, cooked with cray­fish and served with fufu, or the Hai­tan Lalo, cooked with pork and served with rice. None dif­fered as much as the Tunisian mouloukhiya. I looked into that plate served by a Parisian fam­i­ly orig­i­nal­ly from Tunisia, until the elder­ly father laughed and asked if I was look­ing for the leaves! 

Fadi’s rice ball stuffed with a bit of mouloukhiya & meat, topped with fried fresh cilantro and gar­lic — a bite sized Louk­met Mouloukhiya!

BOUTHEINA—A Tunisian cook is always reluc­tant to show her mouloukhya while it’s cook­ing. Also, I have always been told by my elders that mouloukhya prepa­ra­tion should only involve one cook. “Too many hands involved in the cook­ing will spoil it,” “she does­n’t like it.” I once asked my grand­moth­er how the rules apply to the teach­ing process, which involves many hands and many eyes. Her answer was even more elu­sive and mys­te­ri­ous than the rules them­selves: if the appren­tice has Nafas* the mouloukhya will be good anyway. 

Whether or not there is mag­ic involved in the cook­ing is up to debate, mouloukhya remains nonethe­less a capri­cious dish that requires four to six hours of sim­mer­ing on low heat  — the epit­o­me of slow food. The right cook­ing requires some knowl­edge and a great deal of expe­ri­ence. Any­one can fol­low a mouloukhya recipe, while only great cooks make a mas­ter­piece of it. 

NEVINE—The prepa­ra­tion and con­sump­tion of this sim­ple green soup invig­o­rates many sens­es. The visu­al of the art­ful mas­tery of women chop­ping the green leaves, after remov­ing the stems, in a lat­er­al, fem­i­nine swing­ing, hold­ing the two han­dles of makhra­ta — from the Ara­bic root “kh r t” or to “shred” or “mince”; the sound of tashsha, a mix­ture of sautéed gar­lic and corian­der and an ono­matopoeia that owes its name to the tshh­hh sound it pro­duces as it drops into the soup; its aro­ma lin­ger­ing at home for hours; and its savori­ness when dip­ping a lou’ma of bal­a­di bread shaped like widn el otta or “a cat’s ear” to scoop up as much fla­vor for the palate as possible. 

Molokhia revives many good mem­o­ries thanks to the women in my fam­i­ly who excelled at ren­der­ing it a favorite. Reflect­ing back on my younger years in Cairo, I remem­ber it as a sym­bol of agency, of my exis­tence in a house­hold of five, includ­ing exhaust­ed par­ents, who worked full time. Des­per­ate to get me, a child with rare crav­ings, to eat, my moth­er would ask me every Thurs­day what to make for our main meal on Fri­day. Intrigued by the priv­i­lege of decid­ing for my fam­i­ly the dish they would eat on our week­ly hol­i­day, molokhia was my con­sis­tent, incon­testable choice. Often served as a trio with ver­mi­cel­li rice and chick­en —or some­times rab­bit or shrimp for an alter­na­tive gourmet twist — or chick­en stuffed with freekah, it was entic­ing for me to mix the soup with the starch and pro­tein for a tasty one-meal bowl that is easy to swal­low as it imparts a mucilagi­nous consistency.

A green rel­a­tive of mouloukhiya is the tra­di­tion­al Iran­ian ghormeh sabzi or قورمه‌سبزی‎‎ in Far­si — a stew pre­pared with fresh herbs that is Iran’s nation­al dish, also found in Azer­bai­jan and Iraq.

RYOKO—Many oth­er recipes exist in Japan: In a miso soup, in some gyôza, on a bowl of soba noo­dles, sauteed in sesame oil, on a bit of tofu, with salt­ed umé­boshi prunes, in tem­pu­ra… I would love to know what Lebanese, Pales­tini­ans or Egyp­tians would think of our “moro­heiya,” that adapt­ed well to Japan­ese life !

FADI—As a chef re-think­ing Pales­tin­ian cui­sine and focus­ing on high­light­ing local pro­duce in untra­di­tion­al meth­ods, the pletho­ra of prepa­ra­tions for mouloukhiya chal­lenges me to explore its tex­ture and the pos­si­bil­i­ties. The sim­plest game chang­er was fry­ing the fresh leaf in a shal­low hot oil bath and serv­ing it as chips, with a dash of salt or with a dip made of the tra­di­tion­al vine­gar and onion but whipped into a creamy con­sis­ten­cy, a bit like an onion and vine­gar may­on­naise. But my favorite is based on a tra­di­tion­al mouloukhiya recipe, where I cre­ate a rice ball stuffed with a bit of mouloukhiya and meat and serve it on a small por­tion of the stew, infused with lemon and vine­gar and top it with fried fresh cilantro and gar­lic, a bite sized Louk­met Mouloukhiya! 

NEVINE—Today, the Egypt­ian tra­di­tion­al process of prepar­ing molokhia is no longer sta­t­ic. With mod­ern­iza­tion forc­ing many dish­es to evolve and due to the increas­ing female par­tic­i­pa­tion in the labor force, most Egypt­ian women now pur­chase frozen chopped leaves of molokhia, ren­der­ing nos­tal­gia and adher­ence to tra­di­tion the only rea­sons for which a few still (occa­sion­al­ly) opt to chop it fresh. Mean­while, the inter­net that has bridged Arab soci­eties led many Egyp­tians to mim­ic neigh­bor­ing cuisines’ non-soup approach that dries the fresh leaves and mix­es them with diced toma­toes for extra tanginess. 

As an Egypt­ian in the dias­po­ra, no dish trans­ports me back into our home in Cairo like molokhia. Did I suc­ceed in pre­serv­ing its tra­di­tion­al prepa­ra­tion method? Per­haps not entire­ly, accord­ing to the cook­ing stan­dards of the females in my fam­i­ly. I recent­ly pre­pared it and shared a pho­to with my nan­ny in Egypt. “But you made it drop!” Her response was expect­ed and humor­ous. Neu­ro­science proves that “smell and mem­o­ry seem to be so close­ly linked because of the brain’s anato­my.” This holds true to me: I make molokhia not to per­fect its con­sis­ten­cy but because my mem­o­ry is most­ly inter­twined with the aro­ma of tashsha that brims over and revives emotions. 

The mag­ic of mouloukhiya res­onates across the world, in kitchens at home and in restau­rants, bring­ing up cel­e­bra­tions of sea­sons and mys­ti­cal mag­ic rit­u­als, cham­pi­oned for its taste, for its ben­e­fits and for the com­fort it brings in one’s nos­tal­gia. If you have not tried yet, head to any store that sells it and start cooking!

 

* “Nafas,” says Fadi, “is a mag­ic, near­ly untransa­t­able word, a com­bi­na­tion of breath, hos­pi­tal­i­ty, desire for food, and will it please the peo­ple eat­ing the dish, via the tal­ent, mas­tery and a mys­ti­cal pow­er grand­moth­ers pos­sess!” Adds Nevine, “Nafas is what Arab women claim to be — hav­ing the secret or elu­sive gift that they pos­sess that enables them to make a deli­cious dish, that is, the pas­sion for cook­ing, the patience while cooking…its lit­er­al trans­la­tion is ‘breath, as Fadi point­ed out.” 

Arab foodEgyptian cookingghormeh sabzimouloukhiyaPalestinian cuisineTunisian cuisine

Franco-Palestinian chef and hotelier Fadi Kattan has become the voice of modern Palestinian cuisine. Hailing from a Bethlehemite family that has on the maternal side cultivated a francophone culture and on the paternal side, a British culture with passages in India, Japan and the Sudan, Fadi’s cuisine and savoir-faire combine worldly influences, a desire for perfection and a passion for the local terroir.

Nevine Abraham is Assistant Teaching Professor of Arabic Studies in the Department of Modern Languages at Carnegie Mellon University. She received her PhD at Ohio State University and has taught French and Arabic languages, literature, and cultures courses at numerous American institutions. Nevine's research interests are Coptic and contemporary Arab identity, film studies, media and censorship, and food studies.

Ryoko Sekiguchi is a Japanese poet and translator. She studied journalism at Waseda University and after graduating, went on to study the History of Art at the Sorbonne and received a doctorate in comparative literature and cultural studies at the University of Tokyo. Ryoko lives in Paris, and publishes in Japanese and French. The author of some 20 titles, she has collaborated with chefs, artists and musicians.

Boutheina Bensalem is a Franco-Tunisian chef and entrepreneur. She inherited her cooking skills and love for food from her mother, a talented and renowned cook. Boutheina quit her day job to pursue her passion for cuisine, with a particular interest for artisanal food and traditional methods of cooking. She creates a contemporary cuisine influenced by her Mediterranean roots that honors Tunisian terroir and artisanal ingredients. Boutheina has led workshops and showcases Tunisian cuisine at private dinners and immersive food events in Madrid where she lived, London where she currently lives, Toronto for its inspirational food scene and the south of France where she grew up.