Mulukhia: My Summer Obsession

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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.

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Mulukhia  two ways: with chicken (top) and vegan version (bottom)

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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!

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Fresh mulukhia leaves with chopped onion ready to saute.
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Cooked whole leaves are ready to serve garnished with toasted pita and lemon wedges.

Sautéed Mulukhia Greens

Ingredients
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)

Method
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

First Kitchen Memories: Part 1

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When I was five, my mother, brother and I came to live in Beirut. My grandmother Linda was to move in with us as well. My father continued working abroad and came home for every occasion, every holiday and for meetings with employer and client.

Our new home was on the third floor of a six-story building with west-facing balconies overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. A couple of blocks to the north, a black and white lighthouse loomed over our living room and bedroom windows. Our kitchen faced south. Its large central window framed a small neglected lot where a couple of palm trees watched over hedges of prickly-pear cacti. A large sunny, square room with cool terrazzo tiles and white marble counter tops, the kitchen was our first destination in the morning, at noon, and when we came home from school at the end of each day. To the left sat the sink and gas stove separated by a generous span of work-space. On the right, my mother’s electric baking oven and Kitchen Aid mixer proudly stood their ground while my grandmother’s 19th century brass alcohol burner was defiantly placed at the opposite end of the counter.

A table and chairs flanked the window. Since we all ate at different times, having all of our meals in the kitchen did not seem to be a problem except when my father came home. His presence always called for a more formal and inclusive setting in the dining room—at least for lunch which was the main meal of the day.

The kitchen seemed to run on my grandmother Linda’s a schedule. My mother worked around her mother-in-law, respecting her space. They seemed to take turns silently avoiding friction or conflict. Linda would start her day at dawn, puttering around, preparing her own breakfast and setting the table for the rest of us. I often woke up to the smell of her toasting hazelnuts, chickpeas, caraway, cumin and coriander to make her own “Duqqa“, an Egyptian version of Za’tar*. She mixed it with olive oil and spread it over bread and cheese or yogurt. The breakfast table included all of the above with an added bowl of olives and a few jars of honey or home-made jam.

Linda was the twelfth of fourteen children, born in Cairo to a Syrian father and Macedonian mother. She moved to Palestine after marrying my grandfather who was a surgeon for the British military during the Mandate. Widowed in 1938, and escaping to Lebanon with her four children in 1948, Linda was the most frugal and austere person I would ever know. She re-used matchsticks and washed Saran Wrap and plastic bags and hung them to dry on the tiled back-splash. She insisted we turn off faucets while brushing our teeth or washing our hands. She ate leftovers over and over again. She made us wipe our plates clean. She preferred to cook for herself using whatever would be discarded or left over from my mother’s ingredients. She took pride in creating something new and edible from the discarded.

Her cooking was not terribly exciting, but in her defense, it reflected her life’s hardship and the necessity to save. She used her alcohol burner because it was more economical than gas—who was to question? Occasionally she would make a dish that she would share. She made a wonderful Mulukhia** but preferred to hover over my mother’s shoulder giving stern advice and lending an occasional polite hand rather than cook a full meal. I could tell she was used up and tired, but she lit up when we asked her to make us our favorite: her savory squash pie! I would watch her roll the dough with her long slim rolling pin. Thinner than the thinnest of Pizza crusts, she would lay down the cream-colored sheet carefully inside a large round baking pan, gathering it delicately like a piece of satin fabric, and repeating the technique to cover the squash-and-onion filling. Once baked, the golden crust crackled and shattered in a thousand pieces between our teeth while the moist pale yellow-green filling smeared our tongues with a soothing texture and a burst of warm, sweet cinnamon. My grandma knew it was her piece de resistance which set her apart from all the cooks in the family, and she made sure she took the recipe with her to the grave.
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*Za’tar: a mixture of dried crushed thyme (or similar wild herb) mixed with sumac, sesame seeds, salt and sometimes olive oil.

**Mulukhia: A typical Egyptian dish made from a green plant by the same name, with long stems and large green leaves. The leaves are chopped and simmered in broth and eaten as a soup or over rice and chicken, with toasted pita chips and minced onions, flavored with lemon juice, loads of crushed garlic, dry coriander and green coriander (cilantro).