The moment that counts most for me is the one that precedes reading. At times a title is enough to kindle in me the desire for a book that perhaps does not exist.
― Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler
If you’re at all familiar with Middle Eastern cuisine, you might be surprised to hear that Mulukhayah, the title you see on this page, took three days of conversation with my coworkers to decide on. It’s a title that at first seems to be the obvious choice, but in retrospect, turned out to be one that takes into consideration a number of rather important things that aren’t typically associated with leaves.
Because that’s all that we’re talking about here. Leaves.
Serving size: 4
Preparation time: 40min
Cooking time: 30min
I grew up Egyptian. The plaques on my living room wall were stills of King Tut’aankahoom and Queen Nefertiti dancing like Egyptians. The soap operas on my TV weren’t Spanish dubbed—la’, they were made in Egypt and spoke only Egyptian Arabic. My furniture was unnecessarily embroidered, and I often questioned the necessity of so many footstools in my salon.
This often confused me as a child, because my small Egyptian home was settled on the corner of a completely unremarkable street in the completely dull town of Bartlett, Illinois. The craziest dinner at my best friend Rachel’s house was her grandmother’s meatloaf, which had hot ketchup instead of plain ol’ Heinz. No one would try my mom’s basila maa ruz, kousa mahshi, or even her mulukhaya.
But that was okay, because in my small and very American town, we were the only Arabs around. So there wasn’t anyone to tell us that we were doing it wrong.
And then I moved to Lebanon. Not Lebanon, Indiana – as many of my American friends first assumed – but Lebanon the country.
But then they started telling me that my mulukhaya was wrong. And that was just not okay.
1 bag of frozen Jews Mallow (Mulukhaya), thawed
2 heads of garlic, minced + 2 cloves, sliced in half
3 tbsp dried coriander
1 bay leaf
Canola oil, for sautéing
1 whole chicken, marinated in olive oil, salt and pepper
1 vegetable stock cube
Salt to taste
“It’s mloukhiya, not moulohkhi-YA. MLOU-KHEE-YAH.”
“No,” I said stubbornly to my coworker. “I pronounce it mulukhaya. MOUL-OOH-KHAY-YAH. See? There’s a big difference.” At this point, my second colleague chimed in.
“It’s definitely mloukhiya.”
It was a futile three days. The Internet wasn’t helpful at all. “Mulukhiyah, mloukhiya, molokhia, molohiya, mulukhiyya, malukhiyah, or moroheiya,” reads the Wikipedia page. It was clear that the issue wasn’t how to spell it, but instead who was spelling it. Over 10 Arab countries claim mulukhaya as their own, and each version is completely different.
I’m Egyptian, even though I sometimes claim not to be. I’ve never lived in Egypt; in fact, I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve visited. I don’t believe I have much of a claim to the title – except, that is, when it comes to my taste in mulukhaya. Because when we’re talking about mulukhaya, once you’ve gone Egyptian, there’s no going back. So today, we’re going to spell it my way.
Step 1: Fill a large pot with water. Add the chicken, bay leaf, cloves of garlic, stock cube and salt. Boil for 30 minutes, or until cooked. Remove the chicken, but save the water.
Step 2: Add 2 tbsp oil along with the coriander and minced garlic in a medium skillet. Fry until golden. Place aside.
Sibanikh is the Arabic word for “spinach”. It’s also the name for a popular Egyptian dish that’s made of spinach, chickpeas, tomato sauce and rice. The spinach is soft and leafy, and there’s no mistaking it for mulukhaya. That is, if you’re in Egypt.
Not too long ago, my friend Yara and I made plans to go to dinner at Maki, a Japanese restaurant in Beirut. “We just need to drop by my grandmother’s house real quick,” she told me as we got into her car. “It’ll only take a second.”
Her grandmother’s home was magical. As I stepped across the African woven rug at the threshold, I could feel the apartment pulsing with an eccentricity not typically found in Lebanon. The furniture was scarce; there were a few low tables, hard-looking couches embroidered with unfamiliar patterns and an obscene number of Persian rugs strewn across the floor. Somewhere from inside, I could hear the sound of birds.
“She just got back from three months in Morocco,” Yara explained. “And she went a little crazy with souvenirs.”
I remember smelling something that reminded me distinctively of my childhood as we walked into the kitchen. There was an old woman standing by the stove, hunched over a pot almost wider than her. She was wearing at least five necklaces that clashed terribly, yet somehow seemed fashionable in contrast with her tie-dye jacket and hot pink pants.
She didn’t turn her head as we approached. “Good, you’re here,” she said in Arabic. “Set the table, the food’s almost done.” I looked at my friend in confusion.
“No nano, I’m only picking up the package for mom, remember?”
“Just a bite! It won’t kill you. See, look” – she titled the pot towards us. Inside was what looked like sibanikh, but without any chickpeas – “it’s done! Yalla, set the table.” Yara gave me a helpless look. I shrugged. Food was food, and I never said no to a good plate of sibanikh.
With surprising strength, the old woman carried the pot to the table. “Edemi al mloukhiyah, ya Yara,” she said. I handed my friend an empty plate to serve.
“She means spinach, right?” I said absently, distracted by the exotic bird cawing in the corner.
“Nope. Mloukhiya.” I glanced down at the mound of green leaves on the plate and back up at my friend.
Step 3: Section your chicken into thighs, wings, legs and breast. Heat a shallow amount of oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Fry the chicken for about 5 minutes on each side, or until golden. Place aside.
Step 4: Bring your chicken broth to a rapid boil. While it’s boiling, pour the mulukhaya packet in. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, and allow the mixture to stew for around 15 minutes. DO NOT let it boil, or the consistency won’t emulsify. Salt to taste.
Three days later, I showed up at Yara’s door with a bag filled with ingredients for a proper Egyptian mulukhaya. “If we’re going to do this,” I told her, holding up a full sleeve of garlic, “We’re going to do it right.”
One hour later, we were sitting silently on her dinner buffet, plates empty in front of us. “That. Was. Amazing,” said Yara.
Step 5: Serve a generous ladle of mulukhaya over rice alongside a helping of chicken. Enjoy.