FOOD EXPEDITIONS: How Molokhia Has Remained the “Food of Kings ” For Centuries In the Middle East.

Many people in the Western world have not had the pleasure of tasting the traditional Egyptian dish ‘Molokhia’ that has managed to maintain being recognized as the ‘food of kings.’ This dish has an intriguing culinary history that needs to be known to understand why this dish is still immensely popular amongst Egyptians, Syrians, Palestinians, and Iranians. 

Before we delve into the history of “molokhia” and its significance, it’s best first to understand what this dish is and its dietary properties. The dishes’ origin and history can be better understood by knowing this. ‘Molokhia’ is a leafy green used to make a dish of the same name. 

When cooked, this vegetable takes on the unique consistency of a gooey glop that clings to a spoon. This texture is off-putting for some, but many swear its appearance does not indicate a bad taste. According to those who enjoy this meal regularly, “molokhia’ has a bitter-sweet taste that is similar to a spinach and okra meal. This soupy stew dish can be eaten in many ways, with those from coastal locations preferring to eat ‘molokhia’ with shrimp and rabbit while those in the Levant enjoy this dish with chicken or lamb. 

Although the meat choice in this dish differs, commonly, ‘molokhia’ is made with plenty of coriander, garlic, and lemon juice. The lemon juice adds a tangy taste to the dish, which provides balance and earthiness to the meal. Some people enjoy eating the ‘molokhia’ soup on its own without meat with bread, while most enjoy it over rice, especially vermicelli rice. 

Nutritionally ‘molokhia’ is rich in vitamins and is believed to be very healthy. This meal has more than 32 vitamins, including calcium, magnesium, potassium, Vitamin A, and Vitamin C. Its been proven that ‘molokhia’ aids digestion, lowers blood pressure, boosts the immune system, reduces bloating, and improves bone health.

It’s evident that its many health benefits are one of the primary reasons why this ‘food of kings’ has managed to remain a prevalent meal choice for centuries in the Middle East. Yet, it’s also its intriguing history that has been passed down many generations that has kept this meal alive. 

Molokhia: Grocery shopping at the HyperMart in Cairo. (CREDIT: juliegomoll)

Interestingly, there are two stories about ‘molokhia’ that pertain to its history. The first story explains that ancient Egyptians believed that this leafy green was a poisonous plant that could not be eaten. That is until the 1638 B.C Hyksosian invasion of Egypt occurred, and Egyptians were forced to consume ‘molokhia’ as a form of punishment and humiliation. 

The second story states that when an Egyptian king named Fatimid Caliph Al Mu’iz Li Din Allah experienced indigestion problems which prompted him to seek a remedy to his health issues. After countless doctors failed to help him, he was eventually given ‘molokhia’ as a medicine by a doctor, and this leafy green concoction fixed his indigestion. 

Corchorus olitorius. (CREDIT: Dinesh Valke)

Thus the leaf was called ‘molokhia,’ which means ‘royal’ or ‘majestic’ in Arabic. Shortly after, news spread of this wonder food helping the ancient Egyptian king with his indigestion problems, and it quickly became known as the healing food of kings. Interestingly, this plant was somewhat exclusive and primarily used by royal families. 

Over the years, this plant became available to more people, and its availability inspired creativity and allowed many adaptations of the dish to come into existence. Some dishes deviate from the original recipe with different herb and meat choices, while other ‘molokhia’ adaptations have been created to be more palatable for Western taste buds. Additionally, depending on where in the world you try ‘molokhia,’ you might eat it in a curry, in a salad, or as a garnish but in Egypt, it’s mostly eaten as a soup or stew recipe.

Most people cook ‘molokhia’ for special occasions, holidays, birthdays, and celebrations. With such an interesting history, ‘molokhia’ is certainly a dish worth trying at least once in a lifetime. 

WORDS: Jason Collins.

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