The ubiquity of molokhia — an irresistible dish of braised greens served over rice that hails from Egypt and has taken root in the cuisines of Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, Israel and across North Africa — would seem to indicate that it’d be easy to find on menus around town. Such is not the case, largely because, through its cultural dispersion, its name has taken on so many forms — mloukhiya, molohiya, mulukhiyya mulukhiyah, and malukhiyah — that I’ve started keeping count.
The common name for the green that is molokhia is jute leaf, considered a vitamin-rich superfood that’s reputed to be a sleep and digestion aid as well as to improve eyesight. (The Druze,a small religious sect found mostly in Syria, Lebanon and Israel, however, believe in a different bodily consequence — they’re forbidden to eat molokhia because it is thought to be an aphrodisiac.)
Jute leaf is also known as Egyptian spinach, West African sorrel, okra leaf or (ahem) Jew’s mallow. Either because of this or because many Angelenos have never heard of molokhia, it might show up on a menu as “jute leaf stew” or, as the Monday-only special is called at Carnival restaurant in Sherman Oaks, “okra leaf stew.”
There, it’s a plate of boiled, shredded chicken, Chiclet-sized squares of toasted pita and, on the side, some quick-pickled minced onion and moss-colored molokhia that is as sublimely garlicky as it is cilantro-forward. . When I prodded, Carnival’s generally talkative general manager, Nabeel Halaby, about how he makes it, he suddenly grew tight-lipped, offering only that it’s cooked from a “very, very old recipe.”
Sometimes, molokhia is meatless, but it usually comes with a protein. At Cairo Café in Anaheim, the brothy molokhia arrives in a cup along with a mound of rice crowned with a crispy piece of chicken. At Sunnin Lebanese Café on Westwood Boulevard, the lamb shank or chicken — you get to choose — is already submerged in a thick, shiny pool of almost liquefied greens, accompanied by a side of rice, a small vessel of finely chopped vinegary onions and some toasted pita. It’s classified at Sunnin as a “stew,” but, just as often, molokhia ends up in the “soup” section of a menu. Though it’s difficult to find fresh jute leaves in Los Angeles, most Middle Eastern markets have a dried version, as well as 15-ounce packets found in the freezer section. Whether dehydrated leaves or the flash-frozen kind makes for a better molokhia is debated. But what most recipes invariably feel the need to address – as an apologetic side tip, or a worthy final piece to the puzzle – is the resolution to a different issue. Jute leaves, when cooked, get slimy, in a manner similar to the way stewed okra does.
Michael Solomonov, chef and co-writer of the book “Israeli Soul” has a stern approach to addressing molokhia’s viscosity. “I tell [people], ‘Get over it,’” says Solomonov. “Slippery is a good thing. Oysters somehow get a pass. Uni somehow gets a pass. It just is what it is. I was watching my kids eat gummy worms yesterday and I was like, ‘If you like gummy worms, slippery and slimy isn’t so bad.’”
Some sworn-by techniques to mitigate the texture include soaking leaves in lemon juice, or squeezing the daylights out of wet jute. “Most people are put off by [the texture],” says Reem Kassis, author of the cookbook “The Palestinian Table,” whose remedy involves adding a teaspoon of tomato paste. “It’s not enough to alter the flavor. It doesn’t change the color. But it has some acid in it so it adjusts the pH balance to a point where you don’t see much of the mucus.”
Kassis can rattle off lots of facts about molokhia — how Palestinians prefer a squeeze of lemon on top, or that in Egypt, rabbit or pigeon is the preferred protein. But she insists there’s no definitive way to consume it. Some believe pita croutons go on the bottom, then rice, then molokhia, then meat. Others just dump and stir. “You can go into houses in the same neighborhood and how you eat it varies,” says Kassis, who grew up in Jerusalem in a family where molokhia was prepared two ways. Her mother’s version was a soup, her father took the whole leaves, lots-of-garlic route, eaten as a stew over rice. How does Kassis, who is now Philadelphia-based, convince novices to give molokhia a try? “I never get into the nitty gritty of how good it is for you,” she says. “The best way to sell it is to focus on is just how good it tastes.”
Carnival Restaurant, 4356 Woodman Ave., Sherman Oaks, (818) 784-3469, www.carnivalrest.com
Cairo Café, 10832 Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 999-8861, cairooc.com
Sunnin Lebanese Café, 1776 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 475-3358, sunnin.com
Nine-spice mix (optional)
In a large skillet, combine all of the ingredients over medium-low heat, stirring until the spices become aromatic, about 10 minutes. Be careful to watch that the spices do not burn. Remove the pan from heat and cool the spices completely, about 1 hour. Place the spices in a heavy duty spice grinder and grind to a fine powder. This makes more spice mix than is needed for the remainder of the recipe; store the spice mix in an airtight container in a cool place for up to several months.
Vermicelli rice (optional as garnish)
Rinse the rice under running water until the water runs clear. Soak the rice for 15 to 30 minutes to soften, then drain and set aside.
Melt the oil and butter in a sauce pan over medium heat, then add the vermicelli noodles and stir constantly until the noodles are golden-brown, about 5 minutes. Add the drained rice and toss to fully coat in the fat.
Add 2 ½ cups water to the pan, then add the salt and bring to a boil. Boil for 2 to 3 minutes, give the rice one more stir, then remove from heat. Place a dish towel over the pan, close the lid tightly and set aside for 10 to 15 minutes to steam the rice. Remove the lid, fluff with a fork, and hold in a warm place until ready to serve.
In a large stockpot, cover the chicken with water. Bring to a boil, skimming away the scum that rises to the surface, then add the bay leaves, onion, 1 tablespoon salt and the nine-spice mix and reduce the heat to a simmer.
Cook, covered, until the chicken is cooked through, 1 to 1 ½ hours. When the chicken is ready, remove the chicken from the stock. When cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bones and shred. Set the chicken aside.
Strain the stock. Pour about 1 ½ quarts (save any additional for another use) into a large pan and heat over medium heat. Gradually add the mlukhiyeh leaves, whisking continuously to avoid any lumps. Continue to whisk until evenly combined. Add the tomato paste and whisk again to combine. Simmer, covered, until darkened in color, aromatic and less viscous, 15 to 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a small skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until hot. Add the garlic and a sprinkling of salt. Cook until the garlic is fragrant and golden in color, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and add the oil and garlic to the soup, whisking to combine. If the leaves separate from the liquid, or the consistency is too coarse, use an immersion blender to achieve the desired consistency.
Add the shredded chicken, stirring to combine, and continue to cook for about five minutes to marry the flavors.
To serve, ladle the soup into individual bowls. Serve with lemon wedges and chiles. The soup can be eaten over rice or scooped with bread.
Mlukhiyeh leaves, Lebanese 7-spice and Baharat spice mix can be found at most Middle Eastern markets.
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