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 …
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
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
- 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
(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.
(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).
(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.