Photo©2016 Rakan Jawdat: Dupont Circle FreshFarm market, farmer Heinz of Next Step Produce, growers of fresh Mulukhia.
The sultry humid days of DC summers are made tolerable by soaking with friends in the neighborhood pool, early morning deck gardening and the Sunday trip to the Dupont Farmers’ market. There is nothing more exciting than the sight of summer produce abundance and color. The world around me stands still while I zero in on the bright yellow squash, ripe juicy peaches and heirloom tomatoes. I’m a crazed woman spinning out of control: in a matter of seconds my arms are piled high with eggplants, peppers and peaches. I take a deep breath and decide to take it slow: walk around…(breath)…scope the stands …(breath)…I remind myself that I am on a budget and, at this point in my life, I am sadly, only cooking for two.
But then, there is mulukhia, available at one stand, and one stand only. I rush over…It is always surprising to find it here. Its season is short but it is also little known in the U.S. and therefore its presence always seems a miraculous apparition. There is nothing terribly attractive about its long spindly stems with non-descript leaves. It is hard to explain why this obsession of mine has become a focus of my summers. It evokes strong childhood memories of my mother and grandmothers turning their kitchens inside out into mulukhia-processing factories, spreading out the heaps of green leaves over white sheets to dry out in the sun on their Beirut balconies.
I grab a bunch. Why not two…or three? It’s a lot of work…but what the heck…who knows whether I will find it again next week. The farmer looks down at the bundles in my arms, raises his eyes and looks me over checking me out from top to bottom. He smiles and says: “you don’t look Lebanese!?” He tells me that he grows the mulukhia for the Lebanese and Palestinian community in Virginia. “I’ve been coming to your stand for years, my friend”, I tell him, “coming back every week for more until you run out… and yes, I am thrilled that you grow it JUST for us! Thank you!”
Mulukhia is not for everyone, once cooked, it is velvety and mucilaginous. The viscous texture has turned off a couple of my friends—consider yourself warned. But it is popular not only in the Middle-East, Cyprus and North Africa but in Asia as well. It is also known as mallow or jute originally grown in Egypt since the beginning of time. It’s growing season is summer but you find it frozen in Midlle-Eastern grocery stores year round.
Its amazing health benefits exceed those of Kale it seems. High in fiber, potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium and antioxidants, K and B vitamins … everything you’d expect from a dark leafy green and more (?). Mulukhia is made into a green soup by simmering the chopped leaves in chicken broth, flavored with garlic, coriander, cilantro, and lemon juice, and eaten over rice and chicken topped with toasted pita bread chips and chopped onions soaked in red wine vinegar. Egyptians keep it simple, serving it plain (often made with rabbit broth), but we make a more elaborate deal out of it. Its preparation seems endless but I’ve learned to take short cuts.
I began making a vegan version a few years ago for my daughters and I prefer it that way. I use store-bought vegetable broth and for protein I serve garbanzo beans (giving credit to my daughter for this one) or baked tofu cubes—a totally unconventional suggestion, but another added topping with a different and welcome texture. I make the soupy version in winter. It lends itself to pomp and ceremony in the layering of ingredients drenched in the green slime. It has unintentionally become a Christmas day tradition: my French nephew would ask my mother to make it every time he visited DC in December. Now that my mom is gone, I feel obliged to carry on bearing the torch. But In summer I prefer to simply sauté the leaves with onions, garlic and cilantro and finish it off with lemon juice.—I love all my greens this way. I spice my spinach with nutmeg, my kale with ginger, chard with allspice, and my beet greens with Ume plum vinegar. But those recipes are for another day.—
After decades of living in the U.S. I have adapted to a new world, transforming tradition and thinking outside the box even with the most ancient of foods. I believe we hold on to our past, our memories and families even after they are gone—for reassurance. Our childhood foods will always provide comfort. Mulukhia is one of those dishes, it requires time and effort, making it all the more a work of love. And that is why I keep its tradition alive and commune with my past and my people every time I bring it home from the market. It is not so much the flavor or the dish itself that matters but the concept of staying connected to my roots and honoring my past and my ancestors.
I doubt that any of you are rushing to make mulukhia but below are a few blogger websites that have recipes that are authentic and filled with additional interesting information. Marc Matsumoto’s website and recipe for mulukhia is elaborate and very visual. You can omit the whole chicken and use store bought chicken broth or substitute veggie broth for a vegetarian version. I used to make my own broth boiling the chicken with onion, cinnamon sticks etc… but who has the time these days? Food & Wine‘s recipe is decent. I also like the Mideats (blog and website) recipe and Edible Milwaukee has a lovely story on molokhia. I hope you enjoy the reading as much as I did.
Below is my recipe for the summertime version. Good luck!
Sautéed Mulukhia Greens
2 bunches of mulukhia: stems stripped of leaves, stems discarded
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
I very large onion, chopped
6-10 cloves of garlic crushed
1 bunch cilantro finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon to 1 tsp salt
1/2 teaspoon to 1 tsp coriander
2 cups veggie broth
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Pita chips, to serve along side or as topping
Optional: 1/2 cup of chopped onions soaked in red wine vinegar (for topping)
After stripping stems of the mulukhia, wash leaves and spin dry in salad spinner, then lay out on dishtowels on your kitchen counter. Chop onion and sauté in oil over high heat. Place mulukhia leaves in a pile on chopping board and, with a large knife, make a few cuts through the leaves. You do not want to chop too much since that is what renders the leaves mucilaginous. Add the leaves to the onions and fold a few times. Sauté for a few minutes and then add broth a half a cup at a time. Cover, reduce heat and let simmer. You want to keep adding broth and cooking through until the leaves are very dark green and tender.
Meanwhile, in a separate small pan, sauté in a little olive oil the chopped garlic and chopped cilantro. Add salt and coriander. Add and stir in the mix to the mulukhia. Cover, simmer until done. Add lemon juice and adjust salt and lemon to taste. Let cool or refrigerate. Serve with pita chips and lemon wedges.
I particularly love to serve Hummus with it, and the small meat or pumpkin Kibbehs, green olives and some pink turnip pickles. Makes for a lovely mezze spread. Sahtein!
All photos ©2016 Fadia Jawdat