My college apartment was down the street from a Lebanese deli. Instead of eating in the campus cafeteria, I’d head over to the deli to satiate my cravings for falafel and hummus. Having spent much of my youth eating in the Israeli and Arab restaurants of Jerusalem, this was my comfort food. After many visits, I became friendly with the owner and he steered me towards the daily specials – each day his wife would make a traditional, home-style dish for lunch. Sometimes it was a lamb dish scented with cinnamon, others it was fish, but my favorite was “Molokhia” -- chicken simmered with a leafy green vegetable served over rice-noodle pilaf and topped with toasted pita.
I never saw this dish in another restaurant again, so began a quest to recreate it. Every time I met a Lebanese, I would interrogate him to figure out what this dish really was and find out how to make it. Finally, I was able to find a good recipe and a source for the distinctive “Moloukhia” leaves.
Moloukhia are the leaves from a variety of the jute plant. They have a unique texture that some describe as a cross between okra and spinach. Other descriptions include, “slippery” and “gelatinous.” The nutritious leaves thicken the chicken broth and give a rich flavor to the stew. A heavy dose of lemon juice at the end balances the creaminess. It’s an unusual flavor, but highly addictive.
This dish originates from Egypt, but has spread across the Middle East. Spellings can vary, including moloukhi, molokhya and moolkhia, as can its botanical name: jew's mallow, nalta jute, tussa jute, corchorus olitorius. Fresh molokhi is not available in the U.S. but can be purchased dried or frozen in most Arab Markets.
To coax out the best flavor from the stew, it needs at least 30 minutes of simmering. Unfortunately, the long simmer does not bode well for a bright green dish. When prepared with rabbit, it’s fit for a Pharaoh.
1 lb. chicken or rabbit meat
1 large onion, chopped
2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
4 cups chicken broth or water
4 tbs. butter
3 cups dried moloukhia leaves or 10 oz. frozen
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 cloves garlic
1 tbs. coriander
Season chicken with salt and pepper. In a large skillet or pot, combine chicken, onion and broth. Bring to a boil over high heat and reduce to simmer. Let simmer while preparing the next steps.
In a small skillet, melt 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Saute crushed garlic with coriander for 2-3 minutes until garlic starts to soften and the coriander becomes aromatic. Take some of the liquid from the chicken to deglaze this pan and add to above.
If using dried leaves, melt remaining butter over medium heat. Stir leaves for 3 minutes. Remove from heat and crush. Add leaves to the simmering pot. Continue simmering for 30 minutes. Total cooking time should be about 45 minutes. If using frozen leaves, simply add to the chicken pot with remaining butter. Cook for 15 – 20 minutes.
Just before serving, stir in lemon juice. Adjust seasoning to taste with salt and pepper. Serve over rice pilaf, or rice mixed with pilaf noodles