Molokhia Recipe: A Meal Fit for a King

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Sunshine on a plate – literally!

Molokhia– a green soup eaten ‘by ancient kings’ – have you heard of it? Most likely, if you’re not Middle Eastern, you have no idea what I’m talking about. Egyptians in particular love it! Check out this Facebook page dedicated to the many lovers of molokhia. Curious yet? Molokheya (other spellings include molokheya or mulukhiya) is a dark leafy green plant that looks similar to spinach but tastes very different, and unlike any other vegetable that I’ve personally come across. Apparently, the Arabic name of the dish, molokhia, is a derivative of the word mulukiya – which literally means ‘kingly’, or “of the kings.” My superb Googling research revealed that molokhia was actually an ancient Egyptian staple eaten only by kings and nobles, er, pharaohs. Today, obviously Egypt doesn’t have many kings, and fortunately for us commoners, molokhia is now widely eaten by anyone who can make it to the local store, so all those leaves don’t have to go to waste! In fact, it’s considered a national dish by some, right up there with ful medammes and koshary.

Chopping up the fresh molokhia leaves …

Fresh molokhia leaves

Luckily, I came across the English name for this plant online for those of you in the West who are brave enough to go searching for it in a place other than a Middle Eastern store: it is known as Jew’s Mallow, Jute Mallow or Nalta – but not to be confused with Mallow Leaf, which is another plant that also grows wild in the Middle East and is usually made into khobbeizah, another soup very similar to molokhia. In Egypt, the fresh molokhia leaves (pictured above) are picked from the stems, and then minced using a manual vegetable grinder that is essentially an arched blade with two vertical handles, otherwise known in Arabic as a makhrata (pictured below). Of course, nowadays we have electric grinders, but I remember seeing my grandma, back in the day, using the makhrata to chop the leaves – and the aroma of freshly cut molokhia would fill the apartment … no words can describe the excitement I felt as a little girl, knowing that I was going to eat it for dinner later that day. It was probably my favorite meal back then, tied with veal escalope panée.

How is molokhia prepared in Egypt?

I can’t speak for the various ways of preparation in other parts of the world, but I can tell you that molokhia prepared according to Egyptian tradition is outstanding. In Egypt, it’s made into a stew using broth flavored with lots of fresh garlic, coriander, bay leaves, and cardamom (detailed steps below!). The broth is made by boiling chicken, duck, or rabbit (all of which are popular accompaniments to molokhia in Cairo), or – in beach-side towns like Alexandria – fish or shrimp. The soup/stew is enjoyed either with rice or toasted pita, or on its own – and with the cooked bird or seafood on the side (some people place the cooked meat inside the stew after preparation, cut up into little pieces – a favorite way for kids to eat it). As a city-girl from Cairo, I’ve never had the shrimp or seafood-based molokhia, but I hear it’s good. Maybe I’ll try it and share my thoughts for the sake of my Alexandrian friends!

Childhood memories …

Good molokheya is bought fresh, then washed and chopped. However, since I live in the U.S., the only molokhia I can find here is the frozen kind at the Middle Eastern store. Frozen molokhia is almost as good as the fresh kind, but nothing can really substitute for the taste of my grandma’s freshly-chopped molokhia leaves stewed with chicken or duck soup. Actually, I remember very vividly the days my grandma made molokhia for us in Egypt: she usually made it with chicken, duck or rabbit. Here’s one of my favorite anecdotal stories related to molokhia: I was about five or six years old. I had no trouble finishing a whole plate of molokhia as a young kid, but I always wanted to leave a little of the chicken (or whatever meat there was next to it) uneaten. To encourage me, Teta would tell me that if I finished my chicken, I would get to throw the chicken bones from the balcony down to the neighbors’ dogs, which I loved to watch run around in the garden below (and fight over the bones I would throw!). Needless to say, I always finished all the chicken when she made that promise! I liked feeding the pets and watching them eat dinner with me.

How is molokhia prepared in other countries?

The Wikipedia article reveals that, though molokhia originates in Egypt, it’s eaten in other countries as well, though prepared differently according to varying palates. For example, Tunisian molokhia is a very time-consuming dish – it takes 5-7 hours to prepare: The leaves are first dried and made into a powder, then mixed into tomato paste and olive oil to make a sauce, which is left to cook for many hours with chunks of beef. So, it’s not eaten as a stew, but more as a sauce within a rich beef casserole. I’ve never had it that way, but I’m definitely intrrigued enough to try it. Jordanian chef and food writer Dima Al Sharif shows us how Jordanians prepare their molokhia (pronounced mloukhieh) — as a soup just like Egyptians, but topped with a zesty onion vinaigrette. Moroccans mean okra (in Arabic okra is also called bamya) when they refer to molokhia, so don’t let that confuse you. What surprised me the most though are recipes for molokhia in sub-Saharan African countries – In Kenya, the leaves are first boiled in water, then stewed with tomatoes, onions, and spices in oil. In Sierra Lyone, the molokhia leaves are mixed with palm oil  and made into a mixture called Pavala sauce that’s eaten with rice. Interesting stuff!

Molokhia has an impressive nutritional profile …

I’ve heard mixed opinions from Westerners who have tried molokhia: some love it for its unique and flavorful taste, and some hate it for its unfamiliar texture – I should mention here that it’s a little slippery when cooked, similar to okra. If nutritional benefit has any impact your your love for food, you’ll be happy to hear that molokhia leaves are “rich in betacarotene, iron, potassium, calcium, and Vitamin C. The plant has an antioxidant activity with a significant alpha-tocopherol equivalent Vitamin E” (Wikipedia). Also, I’ve heard people say that cooked molokhia smooths the blood flow and inhibits the formation of clots.

Sherif and I love it! I made it for the first time for some dinner guests (both young guys) some time ago when we lived in Chicago and they both couldn’t believe I made it – it reminded them of their mamas’ home cooking. The nostalgia it brought them was priceless to me.

Alright – ready to eat like a king?

Molokhia: A Meal Fit for a King

by Heba

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

Keywords: boil stew soup/stew chicken gluten-free low-carb low-sodium nut-free soy-free sugar-free molokhia

Ingredients (5-6)

  • 1 packet of frozen or a little less than 1 lb. fresh finely chopped molokhia leaves (Frozen molokhia found in most Middle Eastern stores is almost always sold finely chopped, but double check the package to make sure)
  • 1 whole pastured chicken (As mentioned above, you can also use duck, rabbit or wild shrimp to make molokhia – the duck’s broth is an exceptional one. The others I haven’t made yet.)
  • Several cups of filtered water to cover the chicken while cooking on the stove
  • 1 yellow onion, cut in fourths
  • 10 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon of grass-fed ghee or pastured butter
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 2-3 bay leaves, broken into pieces
  • 4-5 cardamom pods, crushed to release flavor
  • Unrefined salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Instructions

(1) Make the base broth (some of which will be used to make the molokehya stew): Rinse the chicken under running water, rub with salt, rinse well, and place in a deep stainless steel pot. Add enough filtered water to cover the chicken and set on high heat. Add onion (chopped in fourths), bay leaves, cardamom pods, salt and pepper to the boiling chicken. Lower to medium heat and cook for 40 min to an hour (depending on chicken weight), until chicken is fully cooked and has reached an internal temperature of 190F.

(2) Roast the chicken: Remove the cooked chicken and place it in a baking dish. Add a tablespoon of ghee, and your herbs or spices of choice, spread it on the chicken, and broil in the oven for 10-12 minutes on a temperature of 400F until golden brown, flipping the chicken on the other side to roast midway.

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(3) Make the garlic-coriander mixture: Using a mortar and pestle or a handheld electric grinder, mince 10 cloves of garlic. In a separate pot, melt 1 tablespoon of butter or ghee and add the crushed garlic. Add 1 tablespoon of ground coriander and a few drops of lemon juice to the garlic. Sauté the mixture for 2 minutes or until a little browned.

(4) Mix it all together: Add 8-10 cups of the freshly made chicken broth to the garlic-coriander mixture. Simmer for 2 minutes. Try to break the molokhia (if frozen) into a few pieces first, then add them to the soup, stirring continuously to break up the frozen pieces. If using fresh leaves, simply drop the minced leaves into the broth and stir. Boil only for about 5 minutes until the molokhia is well mixed. Make sure not to overcook or keep boiling as molokhia needs to be suspended (overcooking makes the leaves fall to the bottom).

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(5) Eat the stew: Many people add white rice to the molokhia, and some add crushed pieces of toasted pita bread. Others, like my grandma, would add the roasted chicken or duck, cut up into pieces into the molokhia. Personally, I now do neither. If I have rice, I only add a spoonful. And I enjoy the roasted bird or meat on the side, to better savor the flavors individually. But of course, there is no rule about how to eat molokhia – it is a matter of preference and tradition! In any case, the only rule is to savor every bite and to eat it while hot, because the flavor of molokhia is unparalleled.

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It can be served with rice, or without — either way, it’s delicious!

 

27 Comments

  1. Love this post, Heba! My family adds a spoon of tomato paste too – love how every family has their own unique way of making it. I am glad you mentioned the point about boiling – we have a friend who once described the recipe and spent SO much time reminding me NOT to boil for too long otherwise all the molikhiya sinks to the bottom 🙂

    • I didn’t know the spoon of tomato paste is so common – I’ll have to try it! As much as I’d love to try the leaves whole, I don’ t have that option here in the States because it’s only sold frozen and finely chopped. :-/ Eh, maybe when I visit Teta in Egypt. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to leave this website. I’m pretty sure this recipe is going to be the key to my best ever molokehya!

  3. I love Molokhiya but my husband doesn’t so when he is not around I treat myself to a meal of Molokhiya. I used to make it without tomatoes but I felt it lacked something and it was a bit too slippery for my taste. I remember as a kid my mum would put big chunks of tomatoes while cooking it which I didn’t want to do because I never appreciated the different consistency of minced molokhiya and chunks of tomatoes mixed in my bowl of rice (fussy I know but I liked to eat Molokhiya with nothing else floating to the surface or sinking at the bottom of my bowl). At one point though I was experimenting and added 1/4 of pureed tomatoes can. This addition improved the taste of the Molokhiya considerably. I also think that adding tomatoes makes molokhiya less slippery which is always an improvement.

    • Thanks for your message, Marwa! I’ll definitely try the tomatoes in there next time. I personally don’t mind the texture, since I *love* the taste so much 🙂

  4. I also wanted to note a mistake in an otherwise seamless and perfect article. Mallow leaf is not Molokhiya. just run a Google image query and you’ll see right away that it is a different plant all together. coincidentally, Mallow leaf is the name for a middle eastern plant and meal by the same name that is Khobbeizeh. Honestly I only heard of it, I never had it or saw it as a kid growing up in Egypt and so I assume it is one of those dying recipes which you might be interested to revive in your kitchen and blog. I came across a post by a Jordanian blogger of Palestinian origin whose grand mother grew up in Egypt and so some of her recipes are Egyptian or are made with Egyptian influences.

    http://fulbrightfeasting.wordpress.com/2011/01/02/khobbeizeh-middle-eastern-greens/

    • Thanks so much for the correction, Marwa – I’ll make that change right away so it doesn’t confuse any people 😉 I’ve actually had khobbeizah and it’s pretty good if I remember correctly. Also made into a soup. But that’s practically impossible to find in the States… Also thanks for the blog link. I’ll check it out!

  5. Heba, I know in MIchigan, we can buy it fresh, frozen or dried. Personally, I like the fresh much better than the others, since you do not get that slimy texture with it. As long as you clean it well, you barely get any of that texture at all. Note:The fresh is usually sold at the end of summertime. I don’t know where you are from, but in Dearborn you can find just about anything you can get overseas.

    • Thanks for your comment Mariam. That’s pretty awesome that you can find fresh molokhia in Dearborn 🙂 I am in Northern Virginia (and Brenda, coauthor of midEATS is in Abu Dhabi). I haven’t looked carefully here, but to my knowledge there is no place to buy fresh molokhia. That’s why for some time I’ve been entertaining the idea of planting it in my backyard! It would be cool to have the fresh kind on hand!

      • I purchased a packet of seeds for this plant from the Kitazawa Seed Company and have it growing in my garden. It is doing very well. I have never eaten Molokhia before, but I was intrigued when I read about it last year. I will definitely be using your recipe when I try it for the first time. Thank you for posting this great write up. I was also wondering what size the frozen package of leaves comes in so I will know approximately how much I will need to harvest.

        • That’s great, Marvin — thanks for stopping by and for your comment! I want to plant my own molokhia one day too. Is it difficult to maintain? As for the packet, it’s typically about 14 oz (400 grams) or so; that’s how much I used in this recipe. Let me know how this recipe works for you if you try it!

          • It doesn’t seem to be particularly difficult to maintain. Now that the weather has gotten good and hot, around 100F, it has really started taking off. Very much like my okra. No pests have seemed to bother it so far.

  6. You should definitely try the Tunisian version if you haven’t yet — cooking it for so long makes it so that it’s not slimy like Egyptian mulukhiya. Although when my husband makes it he only cooks it for about 4 hours, not 5-7. It’s still very much like a soup, and we eat it with French bread.

    • Hi Iriny! It’s great to see a comment from you 🙂 I don’t typically thaw frozen molokhia – I just drop it in the broth and it thaws in there and I just break it up in the broth and stir till it’s all integrated. But I don’t see why you can’t thaw it first – that might make it easier to get incorporated so you don’t have to boil for as long (if you boil molokhia too long, it separates from the broth). As for the vegetarian preparation, in Alexandria, Egypt, some people make it with spiced shrimp broth. Someone made it for me once but didn’t like it too much. For vegan, I haven’t tried this, but you can try with a homemade vegetable broth. I imagine that the garlic and coriander that give it most of the flavor anyway will shine through and the lack of chicken broth won’t be too noticeable. I might be wrong though. Let me know if you try it!

  7. Great recipe! I love moulokhiya–in my home, we eat it with full leaves (my family is Palestinian, and I think this is pretty standard throughout the Levant), and with chicken, rice, and pine nuts. So good. I actually have never had it the Egyptian way. Rabbit sounds like it would be an amazing addition.

    I think a lot of people who haven’t grown up eating it/aren’t adventurous are put off by the appearance and texture: dark green and slimy, like the worst kind of spinach. I remember being a kid and taking it to school and being TORTURED for the way it looked. 😛 Even now, when I bring some to work, people comment on how good it smells. When I show them what it is, they usually change their tune pretty quickly!

    Best part: moulokhiya is amazingly good for you. Love it!

  8. Hi, I just found your website. My husband was born in Egypt and he tells me that the Egyptian milokhiya has a flavor unparalleled anywhere else. We have tried to duplicate the recipe but I have to say I have never heard of bay leaves and cardamom in the soup base. I also think that ingredients have changed over the years and hand-raised chickens are rare to find. If you are looking for fresh milokhiya in the west try an oriental market. It is eaten predominantly by Filipinos and is called saluyot. Even the Vietnamese and Indian merchants should know it by this name. When I make my version of milokhia I too roast the chicken or we have a way of dipping it in batter and deep-frying. An even tastier version is to pair it with the chicken baked in the oven with onions, tomato slices and potatos in a vinegar sauce. In recent years we have skipped baking the potatos and have par-boiled them and deep fried them as a topping to the chicken dish.

    Back to the milokhia, we use mastica in oil to start, then add the filtered water. Next comes onion and whole black pepper corns. The chicken is introduced and simmered, not boiled. You may salt at this time. When the chicken is three-fourths cooked it is either sauced with fresh tomato slices and onion in vinegar or reserved to deep-fry. If you are going to roast it as is our dada used to rub it with a half tomato to give it a deep golden-brown color.

    The mixture for the milokhiya is milokhia, spinach (really good if you have only the frozen to work with) and fresh coriander. These are processed either with the makhrata or in a food processor. When working with the fresh items you need to wash carefully and dry the leaves on clean cloth kitchen towels prior to processing. When the rice is cooked or the chicken is ready you strain the broth and bring it up to a boil. The milokhia is dropped into the broth and broken up with a whisk, you add a pinch of carbonate to keep the color green. The garlic and ground coriander is fried in oil and added to the broth mixture. You take a ladle and pour some of the broth mixture back into the pan so as not to waste any and add it to the pot. You should serve it immediately and for this reason I have the table set and the rice and pita chips already in place before completing the milokhia. Making it from scratch, fresh is a labor of love. The taste is incredible.

    Note: Sometimes milokhia or saluyot is knows as jute.

    http://cagayandeoro.da.gov.ph/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/SALUYOT.pdf

    • Hi Yasmin, thanks for sharing your recipe and method for making molokhia! I will have to check out the local Filipino or other Asian stores for saluyot – I would love to try it with fresh leaves.

  9. Mulukhia (Corchorus olitorius) is also a popular vegetable in the Philippines, particularly in the Ilocos region and in Iloilo, it is called saluyot in Tagalog and Ilocano. It is a common vegetable in our country so it is of great interest to know that it is a major component of dishes for the Egyptian Pharoahs. It is available in Asian/Filipino stores the USA as frozen leaves.

  10. I live in Arizona and every year I grow plants that are not normally available in the U.S.; this year, I decided to grow molokhia. I can’t wait to try the recipes on the post and share with my family.

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