A soup I can’t spell

One great thing about growing edible plants is that there are always new discoveries to make — new to me, while at the same time ancient and traditional to others. This year I grew “Egyptian spinach” for the first time. It is better known as molokhiya, which can be transliterated from Arabic in so many ways that I can’t decide on one and so will spell it differently each time I mention it here. M’loukhia has been grown in North Africa and the Middle East, and especially in Egypt, for thousands of years, and the leaves cooked into soup and other dishes.

I planted melokiyah in the spinach bed at the demo garden, which featured regular old spinach in the spring (and again in the fall, if this week’s heat doesn’t kill it), and spinach substitutes through the summer.
Here is the bed with the tall mulukhiya in the background, actually managing to hide the Malabar spinach growing on and behind it. New Zealand spinach is filling in part of the area between it and the chard (perpetual spinach) in front.

Here’s a closeup of the meloukheya.

Its Latin name is Corchorus olitorius, and it is a member of the large and varied family Malvaceae, which also includes cotton, okra, cacao, baobab, durian, kola nut, and a number of other useful plants along with some annoying weeds. Corchorus is better known to many people as jute; the plant is processed for plant fibers in many parts of the world but originally in India.

It is also known as Jew’s mallow, and is mentioned in the Book of Job in the Bible. If it’s mentioned in the Koran I’d love to know that too (please comment if you know).

Milookhiyya has small yellow flowers and leaves up to about 3 inches long. Mature leaves have “horns” at the stem end that look almost like insect legs. I’m sure someone can tell me the technical term for these protrusions.

The most traditional Egyptian dish featuring this leaf also goes under the name melokheiya (or however you want to spell it). The Congo Cookbook is one place you can find a recipe. I followed this recipe for last night’s dinner, as best I could. I’d only gathered a couple of ounces of leaf, rather than a pound, so I had to make all the quantities smaller, perhaps not in balance, and I think I didn’t chop the leaves small enough. But the soup was warmly green-tasting, slightly spicy, and of an agreeably chewy texture: a little bit mucilaginous, but not as outright slimy as okra can be. I will make it again, both with melokiyah and with spinach, and will try the Egyptian leaf as a substitute in spinach recipes.

You can buy dried molohia in packets, as well as pre-chopped frozen, in groceries that carry North African or Middle Eastern products. Or grow it yourself; it is easy. My plants are now forming seedpods; I’m waiting to see if they will self-seed and come up next year in unwanted profusion, but I will certainly want a couple of plants. A nice discovery for me of a venerable friend to many!

11 thoughts on “A soup I can’t spell

  1. Wendy August 29, 2010 / 12:49 am

    looks hearty and sounds delicious – wish I could have a taste!

  2. Erica Smith August 29, 2010 / 5:21 pm

    Hearty and light at the same time, somehow. And tasty!

  3. RobinH August 31, 2010 / 3:25 pm

    You are a courageous chef. Did your family eat your creation?

  4. Erica Smith August 31, 2010 / 3:57 pm

    They did – and without complaining! (Well trained.)

  5. johanna October 1, 2010 / 10:01 pm

    Not sure if you will get this but being of Egyptian decent, I grew up with molicheya. It was always prepared one way and never any differently so interesting to see some other ideas.

  6. Erica Smith October 2, 2010 / 7:55 am

    Great to hear from you, Johanna. I will be at the demo garden today talking to lots of people and very much hope that some others who grew up with molicheya drop by.

  7. Anonymous October 14, 2010 / 10:29 am

    Im glad to know molohia can be found in usa.As husband n I will be returning there next yr.As for now we live in Egypt.I make this soup as my husband is Egyptian.also the leaves are chopped up very small.Thank you for this insight.

  8. Erica Smith October 14, 2010 / 3:34 pm

    It is certainly available dried here and probably fresh in the right season. I do need to chop the leaves smaller next time!

  9. Madeleine March 5, 2011 / 9:07 pm

    I grew it also last year and the leaves are so good they can be eaten raw straight from the garden!

  10. Anonymous February 14, 2012 / 2:25 am

    I really like how you have it spelled so many different ways. 😀
    I had a question, the chard that you mentioned as being a perpetual spinach — have you found to actually be “perpetual”?
    I would also like to know what other spinach alternatives you used.
    yum yum

  11. Erica Smith February 14, 2012 / 8:05 am

    I didn't find it to be perennial, but actually I don't think we gave it the chance – it probably needed to be pulled up to make room for something else. It might self-seed if allowed.

    The best spinach substitute I've found is New Zealand Spinach – it grows from late spring to early fall and tastes very similar. Malabar spinach, a tropical climber, is also good but has a more mucilaginous texture.

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