Monday, January 18, 2010
I thought I'd start off the cuisine tour with an Egyptian staple: Molokhia. It also goes by the english names of Jew's mallow, Green mallow, or nalta jute. It is a leafy green vegetable that gets confused for spinach. Let's get one thing straight: it's not spinach nor can spinach be used as a substitute.
It's texture is what makes it unique: very slimy when cooked, which is why it makes an ideal soup. Though it is found in India and the Philippines, it has been a staple of Egyptian diets as far back as the Pharaohs. It's one of the few foods that existed prior to the numerous foreign conquest of the country.
Some claim its introduction as a food was made by ancient Jewish priests, hence the name Jew’s mallow. It is also eaten in neighbouring Libya and the Levantine countries (Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon), however it is not nearly as popular as it is in Egypt. In Egypt, molokhia is eaten at most special occasions or at least once a week for family meals. It's the type of dish your mom cooks when a lot of friends or family is coming over. But it's not the dish you serve to impress new guests. For that reason it's not well-known outside of Egyptian households, though a few restaurants serve it in Egypt.
The vegetable is prepared into a viscous soup that is flavoured with garlic and ground coriander and poured onto rice, or cut pita bread and eaten with chicken or rabbit. The key spicing comes from the simple preparation of the taqliya, which is made using equal amounts of chopped garlic and ground coriander, then roasting it until it is golden brown in butter.
Walking the streets of Cairo, you are bound to come across the distinct aroma of the taqliya as households prepare molokhia. In fact, one of Egypt's rulers from the Fatimid dynasty, Caliph al-Hakim Abu Ali Mansur, who ruled Egypt from 985-1021 AD, banned its consumption after prohibiting women from going out in public, simply because he believed molokhia worked as a sexual stimulant in women. Luckily after his reign, the ban was lifted, and households continued to uphold the traditional meal—regardless of religion—across the country.
The recipe is quite simple, as is the case with most Egyptian dishes. The only trick is making the taqliya, which takes about 3 minutes and should not be painful. If you mess up, you can easily do it again.
If you are not in the mood to make your own stock, then use a packaged one. It doesn't change much; but its not nearly as fresh tasting.
Also, I would suggest staying away from any instant Uncle Ben's crap rice. It's not real nor does it have any flavour or texture. Spare the 15 minutes to make your own, or get a rice cooker.
Total preparation time: (not including stock or rice preparation) 30 minutes
Yield: 4 persons
1 roasting chicken
2 cinnamon sticks
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
Water (enough to submerge chicken)
2 cups of rice (can be short grain, or long grain, but must not be instant)
4 cups of water
1 teaspoon of butter
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
1 tablespoon ground coriander (whole coriander ground by mortar and pestle produces a stronger flavour)
1 tablespoon butter
1 package of frozen chopped molokhia
Frozen and dry format are readily available at any Middle Eastern grocery store. The dried one works, but I think it tastes pretty nasty...
I wouldn't suggest buying fresh molokhia because A) it's hard to find outside the country B) it's a pain in the ass to chop up everything C) frozen tastes pretty fresh.
But if you think you can be that person here are some things to look out for:
-Make sure the plants are young, the leaves are green and the veins have not turned yellow.
-Pick leaves and cut off stems, rinse in cold water, allow to air dry and then chop using a food processor or using a special cutting knife called a makhrata (available at larger Middle Eastern grocery stores)or bunch together and roll before cutting with a knife
Optional side dish
1 red (or white if red is not available) onion sliced
Enough white vinegar or lemon juice to cover sliced onions
Salt to taste
1. Start making the stock in advance of the molokhia preparation. This can be done in the morning, or a few days before. Remember, stock can keep well in the fridge for a week, or in the freezer for a couple months. Any stock made from a whole chicken will produce more than the needed 2 cups.
2. Add all the ingredients into a large pot. Add enough water to cover the chicken and bring to a boil.
3. Once stock is boiling, set heat to medium and leave for at least one hour. The longer it is left, the more flavourful the stock becomes.
4. Once stock is ready, set aside.
5. Prepare the rice ahead of time to ensure that the molokhia is ready to be eaten immediately after the spices have been added. Any method of rice cooking is fine, but most Egyptians enjoy a starchier and saltier rice. Measure out the rice and rinse the excess starch under warm water. Add 4 cups of water, add the butter and salt and set to high heat. Once the water is boiling, add the rice and stir. Cover the pot with a lid and set the heat to low. It should finish cooking within 15 minutes. Rice should like a bit like this:
6. In a new pot, add the two cups of stock.
7. Prepare the taqliya by melting the butter and adding both the ground coriander and half of the garlic. If grinding the coriander with a pestle and mortar, be sure that the coriander seeds have all been crushed thoroughly; it will still be chunky compared to store-bought ground coriander.
8. Once the coriander and garlic have been covered in the butter, continue to stir while on high heat until the colour turns golden. Set aside the taqliya.
9. In the stock add the remaining garlic. Also add the molokhia. If using frozen, it does not need to be thawed beforehand.
10. Once the molokhia has reached a hot, but not boiling temperature, add the taqliya mixture and stir to ensure it is evenly distributed.
11. Serve the molokhia on a bed of rice. If desired, spoon some of the pickled onions.
12. Often the chicken from the stock is cut into quarters and fried in butter or roasted in the oven as an accompaniment.
Instead of using a bed of rice, serve the molokhia into a soup bowl and add cut-up pita bread.
And there you have it. So frick'n yummy. And it tastes good cold with pita bread come day two, or three or four. Or sometimes five when you're really hungry and lazy. And don't let anyone call it spinach.