Let me tell you the story of a “dish that never ends”. Mloukhia (Arabic: الملوخية) is one of the most convivial dishes of Tunisian cuisine.
What is mloukhia?
Mloukhia, which is also spelled mlokhia, melukhia, molokhia, molokheya or mlukhiya is a traditional dish of Tunisia and more widely of the Maghreb and the Middle East. It is a beef or lamb stew that is cooked in a very rich sauce made from dried Jew’s mallow powder with olive oil or sunflower oil.
In Tunisia, traditionally, mloukhia is prepared with beef, and sometimes accompanied by pieces of tripe, and cooked on the low heat of a kanoun (charcoal), for at least eight hours. It is also often served with merguez.
The name mloukhia comes from the Arabic word malek or malik, which means “king”. It is for this reason that in Tunisia, this dish is called “the delicacy of the king”.
What is Jew’s mallow?
In Arabic, mloukhia means Jew’s mallow. Jew’s mallow (or jute mallow) whose scientific name is Corchorus olitorius is a plant native to India cultivated in the South of Europe for food use but also and especially textile.
The geographical origin of Jew’s mallow is often controversial, since it has been cultivated for centuries in both Asia and Africa, and it is present in the wild on both continents.
Some sources therefore consider India or precisely the Indo-Burmese region as the birthplace of Jew’s mallow and several other species of corchorus.
Currently, jute mallow is widespread in all tropical regions, and it is also present in all countries of tropical Africa.
In tropical Africa, it is considered a wild vegetable grown in many countries. It is extremely widespread in Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
In Ivorian, Togolese and Malian cuisines, it is called kplala or nanounkoun.
Jute mallow is also grown as leafy vegetables in the Caribbean, Brazil, India, Bangladesh, China, Egypt and the Near East.
Jew’s mallow leaves are also eaten in Asia, especially in Japan, where they are called shimatsunaso (シマツナソ in Japanese).
Jute mallow is grown in southern Europe as a textile plant, especially for the manufacture of burlap.
In Africa and the Near East, it is grown for use in the kitchen, while in Asia it is used more as jute fiber, especially in India, Bangladesh, and China.
For many centuries, burlap has been the most widely used fiber for packaging because of its strength and durability, low production costs, ease of manufacture and availability.
How and when is mloukhia prepared?
Jew’s mallow leaves are dried and reduced to a green powder, that is easy to keep. This powder, whose delicate cooking gives this dish all its flavor, requires several hours of cooking over low heat.
First fried in olive oil or sunflower oil, it is then diluted with hot water and then requires a certain strength for these two components, oil and water, to mingle to a greenish liquid that will become dark brown, even black, after a long simmering. Its taste is halfway between sorrel and spinach.
Cooked especially during the holidays in Tunisia, Muslims consume it on the day of Ras-el-am, the new year of the Hegira so that the year is placed under the sign of its green color, promising hope.
Indeed, thanks to the green color of the powder which is the color of Islam, hope and therefore good fortune, the mloukhia is prepared so that the new year is “green”, or prosperous. In many parts of Tunisia, it is also prepared at the end of a mourning and the first day of Eid-el-Fitr.
The Jews of Nabeul, Tunisia, kept the same traditions and cook the mloukhia for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
The different variants of mloukhia around the world
Do not confuse the Tunisian mloukhia with the Moroccan dish of the same name, no less tasty, and which designates a tajine with okra, similar to Tunisian gnaouia.
Also, the mloukhia recipe is different in Egypt because, unlike other countries, the plant is not used ground or dried but simply chopped fresh, like spinach for Tunisian pkaila. In Egypt, fresh and chopped Jew’s mallow leaves are cooked in a chicken or rabbit broth, and seasoned mainly with garlic and cilantro. The Egyptian mlokhia is a delicious dish that I invite you to discover very quickly and to taste with shami bread.
In Algeria, mloukhia is not the same dish depending on whether one lives in the south, north, west or east. For the south and the east, mloukhia is also prepared with the green powder. In northern and western Algeria, mloukhia is also called gnawiya and is made with okra.
In the Levantine cuisine, the standard dish of mloukhia is prepared by cooking red meat (or chicken) in a separate pan, to boil it. After the meat is cooked, the fresh Jute mallow leaves are added and cooked. In addition, in northern Lebanon, a very popular dish called mloukhiye b zeit meaning “Jew’s mallow with oil” is prepared from fresh leaves and shoots of Jute mallow that are cooked in olive oil, onions, vegetables, garlic, tomatoes and hot peppers.
In Kenya, the Jew’s mallow dish is called mutere, murere, apoth, or mrenda. It is a very popular vegetable dish among the communities of the western region (Vihiga, Kakamega, Busia, Trans Nzoia and Bungoma) and the Nyanza region (Kisumu, Siaya, Homa Bay, Kisii, Migori and Nyamira).
The leaves are separated from the stems and then boiled in water with ligadi (a form of baking soda) or munyu (traditional plant-based salt). The leaves are boiled with other leafy vegetables like likuvi or mito.
The vegetables are steamed with tomatoes and onions in oil. Spices such as curry, pepper, masala or coriander are sometimes added. The mutton is served with ugali and can be accompanied by meat or chicken.
In Cyprus, the dish, rather a broth, is called molohiya and is mostly popular in Turkish Cypriot communities. The leaves are separated from the stem and dried whole. They are cooked in a broth made of tomato, potatoes and lemon, with onions and garlic. Lamb or chicken can also be added.
Jew’s mallow is also a common food in many West African tropical countries:
In Sierra Leone and many parts of Equatorial Africa, the jute mallow dish is called kren-kre (krain krain or crain crain) and is eaten in a palm oil sauce served with rice or cassava fufu.
In southwestern Nigeria, it is called ewedu and is served with cooked yam flour (amala).
In Liberia, it is called palaver sauce and it is served with rice or fufu.
In the Gambia, it is called kereng-kereng and is generally used for making supakanja, a dish prepared with okra, red palm oil, fish and/or meat.
In Haiti, the dish, made from fresh Jew’s mallow leaves, commonly known as lalo, may be cooked with or without meat. As far as meat is concerned, Haitians use beef or pork shoulders. Seafood such as blue crabs, shrimp or snow crab legs are also commonly used. It is traditionally served with white rice.
Benefits of mloukhia
The mloukhia powder is the spice richest in magnesium with 609 mg of magnesium per 100 grams.
It is rich in vitamins A and B, mineral salts (sodium, potassium, and iron), fiber, carbohydrates. In addition, it stimulates the stomach, strengthens immunity and protects the mucous membranes, the digestive system and the spleen.
It has calming benefits and acts as an analgesic. It protects even the heart and the eyes. It treats toothache very effectively. It also fights anemia, preserves brain cells, delays osteoporosis, and it can also treat infertility problems.
It is recommended for people suffering from anemia to consume mloukhia because it effectively fights against blood deficiency.
It is true that even mloukhia is full of nutrients, it has a sticky appearance that is not very appealing. And yet it is so delicious!
It is nicknamed “the dish that never ends” because you should not enjoy it with a spoon. It is served with a very generous portion of Tunisian Italian bread. Saucing it with the bread again and again gives an impression that the dish “never ends”.
If, at first sight, mloukhia seems inedible to you and has an unattractive appearance, be a little more adventurous. It’s so good that it’s a safe bet that you will soon become addicted.
- 4 oz. dried Jew's mallow powder (mloukhia)
- 1½ lb beef , cut into large pieces (hock, chuck, shoulder, or cheek)
- 1 cup olive oil (or sunflower oil)
- 2 quarts boiling water (or more)
- 1 teaspoon tabel (Tunisian spice blend)
- 1 tablespoon ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon ground caraway
- 5 cloves garlic , pressed
- 1 onion , chopped
- 1 tomato , peeled, seeded and crushed
- 1 teaspoon tomato paste
- 2 bay leaves
- 3 tablespoons fresh cilantro , chopped
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon harissa
- In a heavy bottom non-stick stock pot, pour 4 tablespoons of oil and heat.
- Sauté the onion, garlic and meat over medium heat.
- Add the spices and salt, and fry over medium heat for 10 minutes, turning the pieces of meat regularly.
- Add the tomato and tomato paste and the bay leaves. Mix well.
- In a bowl, mix the Jew mallow's powder with the remaining oil, until obtaining a homogeneous paste.
- Pour this mixture over the meat and let it simmer for a few minutes over low to medium heat, being careful to stir well with a spatula so that it does not stick to the bottom.
Add the boiling water in 4 or 5 times, being careful to stir in between additions.
- Cook for 15 minutes over medium-high heat, making sure it does not overflow.
- Add the chopped cilantro and mix well.
- Reduce heat, and cook over low heat, covered, for 5 to 6 hours.
- Uncover and let the sauce reduce, until the oil begins to appear on the surface.
To know if the mloukhia is ready, dip a piece of bread, if it is just wet it is not cooked yet.
Be careful, the mloukhia is not to be eaten with a spoon, it must be served with warm bread, preferably Tunisian Italian bread.