This is molokheyya. It is a member of the jute family. It does have an English name (Jew’s mallow) although I highly doubt anyone in Europe or North America is at all familiar with it unless they have some Middle East connection. It has a lot of the good vitamins you tend to find in dark leafy greens, but this plant is its own kind of special. In the Middle East, you can buy it fresh, dried, or, if you’re lazy like me, frozen. (Although no good Arab woman would ever admit to using frozen molokheyya, its presence in supermarkets all over the Middle East makes me think otherwise. Someone must be buying it–and it’s not the foreigners!)
Because, see, Egyptian-style molokheyya is a food that, mostly, only Egyptians love. Egyptians, and me. It is the Egyptian national dish, and the one food that I craved when we were back in America last year but could not replicate. Towards the end of August, I did find a bag of frozen molokheyya at a food shop run by an Afghan man in NorthEast Portland; he had no idea what it was or how to prepare it. I bought that molokheyya and put it in the freezer at my cousin’s house, but she had already prepared salmon for that night, and then we left the next morning, and I never got to eat my molokheyya. Later I emailed instructions for cooking it to my cousin, but I think my description of the final product kind of turned her off and she probably never ate it. Maybe it will still be there next time we visit?
The problem for most non-Egyptians is that when Egyptians make molokheyya they mince the leaves very, very finely before turning it into a soup. And when you mince molokheyya leaves and then cook them, they turn slimy, like cut-up okra. Viscous. “Mucilageinous” according to Wikipedia, although neither spell-check nor my computer dictionary recognize that word…As far as I know, Egyptians are the only ones who eat molokheyya this way; cooks in every other Arab country keep the leaves whole or add vinegar or lemon juice to avoid a snot-like texture. Egyptians also add a LARGE quantity of mashed garlic, as in 20 or more cloves. This may be the real reason I love molokheyya so much…
Plain molokheyya or molokheyya with chicken is a standard dish on many Egyptian tables. But for a really special treat, they like to make it with rabbit. Rabbits that are waiting, alive and fluffy and big-eyed, in cages at the market. Fortunately, I grew up in a family that, on occasion, raised and killed animals for eating, so I am not squeamish about that sort of thing. Also fortunately, the nice man who sells the rabbits also kills and cleans them, because although I have no problem choosing the cute little bunny to be slaughtered, I don’t actually know how to do it myself.
At this point, I doubt you have much appetite for molokheyya or anything else, so while I am still going to give you a recipe, it will be the “cheater” version that I use, which does not require me to look like a fool while trying and failing to hand-mince the molokheyya leaves with a large, double-handled curved knife or mash the garlic in a mortar and pestle, two essential Arab cooking skills that I have yet to master.
- 1 400g bag frozen minced molokheyya (do not thaw it)
- 2-3 cups chicken or rabbit broth, depending on how thick you want the soup
- 1 head garlic, minced
- 1 Tbsp. coriander (dried coriander, for you non-Americans)
- 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
Bring the broth to boiling in a pan large enough that the entire block of frozen molokheyya will fit into it. Add the molokheyya and turn the heat down to med-low, and stir regular so that the molokheyya thaws slowly. It is important that the soup does not return to boiling, because if you overcook it, the molokheyya will not remain suspended in the broth but will separate, and that’s not a pretty sight. Once the molokheyya is thoroughly thawed, turn the heat to low and keep an eye on it while you prepare the garlic.
In a frying pan, heat the oil and add the garlic, coriander, and a big pinch of salt, and fry until the garlic is golden. Pour this mixture into the molokheyya and hopefully it will make a very pleasing sizzling sound. This means everything is hot enough! Stir to combine and serve over rice or with flat bread. If perchance you made the broth yourself and have the chicken or rabbit meat available, feel free to add the meat, chunked or shredded, to the soup.