The theme running through the last week is a type of descent into chaos. The shy and retiring president of that obscure North American country seems intent on stoking the fires of Armageddon wherever he can. He challenged Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby on his knowledge of biblical truths when the latter published a letter from heads of churches in Jerusalem denouncing the potty Potus’ unilateral move to declare the city the capital of Israel. Seems the orange superhero does not consider the ones about ‘loving your neighbour’ and ‘welcoming the stranger’ that significant. The move sparked global outrage and ‘Days of Rage’ in protest, already resulting in the needless deaths of at least two Palestinians, and sending the region spiralling further downward.
Protesters outside the US embassy in Beirut. Photo: Reuters/Mohamed Azaki
We are living in an age of rage, according to Indian writer Panjak Mishra. Inequality, unfairness and unmet expectations have created a breeding ground of resentment and anger that is manifesting in protest of all kinds, including, sadly, the kind that got yer man over there elected. And the future does not look peachy..
Example of small, thoughtful acts.
What can we do when the reality in front of us is not the one we want? Psychologists highlight the importance of taking some action, no matter how small, rather than repeatedly asking yourself ‘How the f*&# has this happened?’ and plotting assassination attempts. Personally, I decided to delve into chaos and confusion on a minor scale, by tackling a favourite family dish of my cherished half-Lebanese flatmate, for her birthday celebration, with her siblings present and ready to judge. Maybe not the kind of political protest that will satisfy a dyed-in-the-wool activist, but as my friend the craftivist says, small and thoughtful acts matter.
The dish in question is called Molokhiya, and it is popular also in Palestine, Egypt, Syria and Morocco, but each place has its own particular way of cooking it. Hopefully it is not casually racist to say that the name Molokhiya, if you don’t speak Arabic, does evoke a sense of murkiness and mystery, not unlike the feeling of cooking it for the first time, nor its appearance once cooked. Yes, the whole experience resembled being lost in a swamp, but don’t let that put you off: you are going to end up craving this thing.
Molokhiya is a leaf also known as Jew’s or Jute Mallow that grows and is eaten across Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Not long ago it was heralded as the next superfood, since it packs a stronger protein and iron punch than kale. Suspiciously, that news didn’t go viral. It dates back, in culinary history, to the ancient Egyptians, and apparently also has the name Jew’s Mallow because it was once central to Jewish cuisine. Apart from the fact that I was cooking Molokhiya for the first time for people who grew up eating it, I was apprehensive – or terrified- because it is also known as ‘bush okra’ due to its gooey texture. As the English name suggests, it is a member of the mallow family, a distant ancestor of present-day marshmallows. When, during my ‘sabbatical’, I spent a weekend with a couple near Sgarta in North Lebanon to learn their cooking ways, the only thing I noted about Molokhiya was the addition of plenty of lemon juice to reduce the slime factor.
To the right, fresh molokhia leaves on sale on Bethnal Green road.
I carry my own baggage that heightens my fear of goo: I remember my father taking hours to carefully prepare okra (or bamies, in Greek), cutting the tips in such a way as to not let the goo escape. So when it came to this Molokhiya dish, I took several precautions that would make my father proud. I avoided the fresh molokhiya leaves, which I had been excited to find at my local street market on Bethnal Green road, because I was advised that this would be gooeyer. I instead opted for the dried leaves, procured all the way from Phoenicia. I then decided to religiously follow aunty Amal’s steps for slime reduction: first soaking the leaves in hot water for 10 minutes, then soaking them again in hot water and lemon juice, and diligently squeezing the liquid out. The resulting dish was entirely goo-free, but to the point of being a little too dry. It survived the Lebanese family reckoning unscathed, but when I decided to experiment a couple of days later with fresh leaves, just adding lemon juice to them while cooking, the texture was more coherent and it tasted better, in my opinion. The lesson: don’t let fear rule.
Fresh molokhia leaves
Cooking them up
It follows that what I have written below is a loose recipe, adaptable to taste. The addition of oven-toasted flatbread, layered under rice, chicken, molokhiya and topped with chopped onions in vinegar is a particularly yummy Lebanese version. In the Palestinian Table, tomato paste is used instead of lemon juice to reduce the slime. Some recipes add no slime-reducer, but if nothing else, I think lemon enhances the flavour. The herbs and spices also vary, depending on where this is being cooked, but fresh or dried coriander seems to be a constant. Expect a wild herby leaf taste and a simultaneous soupy and chewy texture that you will grow to obsess over. I have made so much of the stuff now that we have a twice-daily fortifying dose. Watch out, Trumpster, your freedom fries and KFC-based-diet is no match for ours.
Lebanese-style Molokhiya (serves 6-8)
For the chicken and stock
1 whole chicken (at least 1.5 kilos)
1 stick of cinnamon
3 small onions or 1 large onion halved
3 bay leaves
For the Molokhiya*
400g dried or 600g fresh molokhiya leaves
2 heads of garlic (or less or more to taste)
2 bunches of fresh coriander, stalks removed, leaves finely chopped
3 (or more, to taste) teaspoons of Lebanese seven spice or Palestinian nice spice (Baharat)
3 teaspoons of cinnamon
Salt, to taste
Olive oil, for frying
Chicken stock, homemade, and extra cubes if extra water is needed
A few flatbreads (Lebanese or Palestininan khobz)
1-2 red onions
1 cup red wine vinegar
Rice (you can try vermicelli rice, which is more traditional, but I just made basmati)
Begin by making the stock. Wash the chicken and place in a large pot with water covering it by at least two inches. Bring to the boil and skim the scum off the surface with a spoon. Add the onions, cinnamon and bay leaves, and simmer for around 1 hr 15 minutes. Once ready remove the chicken, reserving the stock, and allow to rest. Once rested, remove the chicken meat from the bones and keep covered so it doesn’t dry out.
Wash the molokhiya leaves. If using dried, soak in warm water for 10 minutes and squeeze out. If using fresh, wash as normal.
When your stock is ready, you can begin cooking the molokhiya. Finely chop half the garlic and fry in a large casserole pot/saucepan with a couple of tbsp of olive oil, until fragrant but not burnt. Add the dry spices and fry for another couple of minutes, followed by half the fresh coriander for a couple minutes more. Add the molokhiya leaves, and stir well so they mix with the garlic and spices. Fry for 5-10 minutes (until the leaves wilt if using fresh leaves).
Sieve the home-made chicken stock into the molokhiya. If the liquid is not enough (think a liquid stew or dense soup), add more ready-made stock. Add the juice of 2 lemons and salt to taste.
Delicious chicken-strewn swamp. I added the chicken to the stew at the end, as many recipes do, before knowing the Lebanese rules.
Bring to an gentle but energetic simmer and cook for about 30 minutes, until the leaves are dark and tender (though they may still retain a slight toughness -especially in the case of dried leaves- that softens after a day or two’s resting) . About 10 minutes before the end, add the other head of garlic, cloves crushed, and the rest of the coriander. Add the juice of 1-2 lemons depending on how lemony you want it.
Toasted flatbread: prepare the bread by cutting/tearing flatbreads into rough 2x2cm pieces. Before frying the molokhyia, preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Once the molokhiya has started to boil, put the bread on a baking tray and mix with about 1-2 tbsp oil, and mix to coat. Place in the oven until golden and crisp. This will take around 15-20 but check regularly and mix the bread around in the tray so it is evenly toasted.
Onions in vinegar: These really seal the deal, my friends, adding a sharp acidic element that, combined with the toasted bread below, significantly ups the yum factor. Finely dice the onions and put in a bowl with the vinegar.
Plate up in layers, starting with the toasted bread, followed by rice, chicken, molokhia (with a decent amount of liquid from the stew), and a couple of spoonfuls of vinegar-y onions. Enjoy, and repeat, for several days running.
*You can make this vegetarian by simply omitting the chicken and chicken stock, and using vegetable stock instead.