Dubbed the “food of kings”, the unassuming green gloop called molokhia was once outlawed in Egypt because of its alleged aphrodisiac effect.
“It is easy to swallow, so Egyptian mothers feed their babies on it after nursing,” remarked Emad Farag, an employee at The St Regis Cairo, as I slurped another spoonful of the mysterious moss-coloured soup. Of all the things I had imagined I would be dining on in Cairo’s swankiest new hotel, “posh baby food” was not it.
But this uniquely gummy concoction is no ordinary baby food. Pronounced “mo-lo-h-i-a”, but spelt innumerable ways, the unassuming green gloop was once the “food of kings” because of its curative powers. Originating from the word mulukia, which means “that which belongs to the royals”, legend has it that a healing soup made from the molokhia plant nursed an Egyptian ruler back to health in the 10th Century. And so, a stew worthy of pharaohs was born, and a royal veggie was crowned.
“As far back as you can trace the roots, people ate what was local, and what is local along the Nile is molokhia,” food historian-cum-food health writer Michelle Berriedale-Johnson said. To this day, 95% of Egyptians live along the fabled river’s life-giving banks and arc-shaped delta.
“They were eating ful (a hearty fava bean stew) and molokhia in pharaonic times, and they are eatingful and molokhia now, because that’s what grows and what suits their diet and the climate,” Berriedale-Johnson continued. “You will get leaves in some of the tomb paintings,” she said of the saw-toothed leaf vegetable that belongs to the mallow family.
In the book Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table: A Fourteenth-Century Egyptian Cookbook, author Nawal Nasrallah writes: “The ancient Egyptians left no culinary recipes, but food remains from their tombs and coffin murals, that depict baking and other food-related activities, testify to the sophisticated level of their cuisine. These depictions also reveal the abundance of their produce such as Jew’s mallow (mulukhiyya).”
Despite its plentiful supply, molokhia wasn’t always available to the masses. According to folklore, the Caliph of Cairo (one of Egypt’s rulers from the 10th Century Fatimid dynasty) outlawed consumption of the viscous soup because of its alleged aphrodisiac effect on women.
No longer the preserve of pharaohs, these days molokhia is a staple of every Egyptian kitchen. While the official national dish is koshary (a vegetarian medley of rice, chickpeas, macaroni and lentils) most Egyptians consider molokhia to be the country’s emblematic meal. The earthy and grassy flavoured at-home dish is ordinarily eaten in the evening — paired with rice, bread or meat. However, some purists (and children) will consume molokhia neat, as a lunchtime soup. It’s also a regular fixture on the menus of no-frills Egyptian restaurants like Cairo’s El Prince on Talaat Harb Street.
“It’s not an expensive vegetable,” Farag said. “Molokhia’s for the rich and the poor.”
In Aswan’s Sharia as-Souq, I queued alongside a construction worker, bank manager and taxi driver to buy bunches of it from a rusty wheelbarrow manned by Mahmoud. The 15-year-old market vendor told me he sells 110 Egyptian pounds (US$7) of molokhia daily, harvested on his family’s one-hectare plot in nearby Abu El-Reesh.
Luckier stall-holders get to shelter from the stifling sun under rainbow parasols lining the bazaar’s seven blocks, which run parallel to the Nile. I followed my nose to Al Reda spice store on Saad Zaghloul Street, where burlap sacks overflowed with dried hibiscus flowers, cumin and dried molokhia. The store’s third-generation owner Moustafa Mohammed told me that while his ancestors made molokhia nashfa, which uses dried versus fresh leaves, he mops up his molokhia with baladi (Egypt’s ancient answer to pita).
Family traditions and geography dictate how and what is eaten with molokhia. In coastal cities like Alexandria, locals devour molokhia bel gambary with shrimps. Meanwhile, in the country’s rural hinterland, it’s paired with poached rabbit — a meat of the privileged few in ancient Egypt.
Tarek Helmy — a semi-retired consultant from Cairo — folds the green gloop into rice, as his father did.
For those who can stomach the slime, their gut and waistline will thank them later.
“It (molokhia) has all kinds of good digestive virtues,” Berriedale-Johnson said. A recent study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology reveals that its leaves can even prevent gut inflammation and obesity.
A super-food without the cult following or jacked-up prices, molokhia is packed with Vitamin C, E, potassium, iron and fibre.
“It (molokhia) also contains certain antioxidant carotenoids and antioxidant elements, making a well-rounded and highly beneficial addition to your diet,” Cairo-based child nutritionist Mai Amer told me of the nutritional powerhouse.
Back in the kitchen, I joined Tarek over a sublime-smelling stove. “If you hear the tsas (a sizzle), you are doing it right,” he said, ladling the molokhia into a simmering pan of garlic, ground coriander and melted ghee. “I add in some tomato for tartness and sweetness.” — BBC Travel.