There my parents were, rushing out the door at 6:00 am headed to the farmer’s market, with large fabric bags, their laser sharp radar focused on one particular kind of leafy produce. If they left just 15 minutes later, this prized bundle of unique greens would be completely sold out. Once at the market, they joined the throng of other Arab and even Chinese Americans, eagerly waiting in line for their fresh stash of…Molokhia.
If there is one food with a cult following in the Arab world, especially in Egypt, it would have to be molokhia. On any given night, you will see a family eating a stew of molokhia in Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and even Cyprus. This particular plant, which looks like mint, yet tastes like a combination of spinach and okra, has an ancient history rooted in Egypt to the time of the Pharaohs. In English these greens are known as the jute plant, or even Jew’s Mallow, as some believe ancient Jewish rabbis also ate this plant.
There are many ancient folklore tales that revolve around this historic and mysterious plant. One tale explains that when the Hyksos tribe invaded Egypt 3600 years ago, they forced the Egyptians to eat molokhia, thinking it was poisonous. The Egyptians not only survived, but thrived after eating the plant, finally wrestling their country of Egypt back 100 years later from the Hyksos. In another story, an Egyptian king had indigestion problems, and after consulting every doctor and trying every remedy, he found the one doctor that gave him molokhia, which fixed the problem. Hence the leaf was called molokhia, which means royal or majestic in Arabic, as it became the cherished and healing food of kings.
Nutritionally, molokhia has three times the calcium and phosphorus as kale, and four times the amount of riboflavin. It also provides 70% of the RDA value for Vitamin C, 25% of the RDA of Vitamin A, as well as potassium, calcium and magnesium–actually more than 32 vitamins in all. Aside from aiding digestion, molokhia is also purported to boost the immune system, lower blood pressure, improve bone health, as well as reduce bloating and insomnia.
There are as many ways to eat molokhia as there are health benefits. In Egypt they love molokhia with rabbit, as well as shrimp in the coastal towns. In the Levant they love this dish with chicken or lamb. While the protein is negotiable, the one constant in molokhia stew is heaps of garlic, coriander, and lemon juice, which add tang and earthiness to the sauce. Some like to sop up the stew with bread, but many prefer it over rice, particularly vermicelli rice where both toasted noodles and white rice are cooked together. I am bringing back that recipe below.
While not everyone has access to molokhia at the farmers market, many middle eastern markets sell the leaves in the frozen section, either chopped or whole. The peak season for this green is summertime, from June to July. The Chinese know this plant as “okra greens” as the leaves can take on a slimy texture similar to okra. But it is this texture that actually thickens the soup. While the slimy leaves are an acquired taste, the frozen minced leaves turn out the least slimy upon cooking. Spinach also makes a great substitute in this recipe if jute leaves are not readily available.
To see our family technique of how to make molokhia, click on the video below:
6 bone in chicken thighs or 8 drumsticks or 4 breasts
(if using breasts, cook 10 minutes less)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 onion, chopped
3 tbsp olive oil
3 tsp ground coriander
10 cloves garlic, finely minced
About 3 quarts of boiled water
1 packet frozen Molokhia, or the leaves from two large fresh stalks of molokhia
(You can also use two 2 to 3 packages of fresh spinach as a substitute)
8 cloves of minced garlic
2 tbsp ghee
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tsp lemon juice, plus additional lemon wedges to serve
Sprinkle all sides of the chicken pieces with salt, pepper, and allspice. In a large pot, add the 2 tbsp. olive oil. Sear the chicken on both sides until browned (the chicken does not have to completely cook yet). Add the third tbsp of olive oil, and add the onions and saute until lightly browned. Add the garlic and saute for one minute more. Then, pour the boiling water so that it just covers the chicken. Season the water with the coriander, and more salt and pepper to taste for the broth. Cover and set to a low simmer for 30 minutes. Take out the chicken and set aside to avoid overcooking the chicken as you cook the molokhia leaves. Add the molokhia to the broth and cook for 10 more minutes. Top off the molokhia with 1 tsp of lemon juice. Add the chicken back to the broth once the molokhia has been cooked. For the topping, add the ghee to a separate skillet, then add the 8 cloves of minced garlic. Saute for one minute, then add the jalapeno if using. Add the cilantro and combine. Pour the topping over the whole pot of molokhia or you can keep it in a separate small pitcher so each person can add as much as they wish to their own bowls. To serve, add the chicken and molokhia sauce over vermicelli rice with lemon wedges to each portion before serving.
If you need a refresher on the vermicelli rice, I have provided the link below:
1 tbsp butter
2 cups white rice
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup vermicelli noodles broken into 1 inch pieces
Salt to taste
4 cups plus 2 tbsp water
In a large saucepan, melt the butter with the olive oil, then add the vermicelli noodles. Saute the noodles until browned and crispy, then add the rice and stir for another minute. Add the water and salt to taste and bring to a boil. Then cover and simmer for about 20 minutes.