Ramadan 2023 and the Food of Kings

Posted on March 23, 2023 in John's Current Blog

Hanoi, Vietnam; March 23, 2023:

Ramadan Mubarak!

If you have ever been to an Egyptian restaurant, you are likely to have seen Mulukhiyah (or Molokhya or Molohiya or various other spellings) on the menu. It may even be called, simply, Green Soup. It is made with the leaves of jute, Corchorus olitorius, and is often described as the Food of Kings. It was once outlawed in Egypt because it was said to be an aphrodisiac. It recalls for me pesto, with its pounded green leaves and garlic, but it is very closely related to some jute leaf soups in the Caribbean, which are directly descended from Africa. In both Western and Eastern Africa, where both plant and soup are called by the Yoruba word ewedu, it is a sauce cooked with crayfish and locust beans and used more like pesto or pistou alongside meaty stews or with pounded yam or fufu. In Egypt, it is served with rice or with eish (which means “living,” but is what we would call pita bread).

The first time I had it, I thought that the chef said to me that I might initially find it “stinky,” but what he meant was “sticky” or “slimy.” I didn’t find it to be mucilaginous at all, though I don’t mind that texture; I’m a devout okra-eater. That thickening quality of the jute leaves also appears in dishes throughout the Levant, Brazil, India, Bangladesh, Southeast Asia, China, and Japan. In Taiwan, where it is used in candies, baked goods, and popsicles, there is even a jute culture museum! One of the few green vegetables that is never stir-fried, there it is mixed, not unlike its Afro-Caribbean cousin, with whitebait and sweet potatoes to make the famous Taichung “soup of jutes,” which is eaten cold on scorching days. Here in Vietnam, rau đay is made into a soup that is eaten hot, as it is in the Middle East. It is made with dried shrimp, onions, and shrimp paste.

Corchorus is the primary source of jute fibre, but olitorius, whose leaves are revered, is inferior to the capsularis species. They are members of the Malvaceae (mallow) family of plants that includes over 4000 species, including okra, cotton, cacao, durian, linden trees, hollyhocks, and hibiscus. They are annual lowland crops of the tropics. Also known as denje’c’jute, nalta jute, tossa jute, jute mallow, Jew’s mallow, West African sorrel, and bush okra, its origins are disputed, as is the taxonomy of many plants in the Malvales order. In the Philippines, where it is called saluyot, it is the base of a soup with mushrooms. Usually cooked with beef or chicken stock, it varies both widely and little. In Alexandria, it is made with seafood, and in Palestine, Syria, and Jordan, chicken is often added.

Molokhiya is not to be confused with the Hawai’ian island of Moloka’i (or various flowers that are called molokhay because of their preponderance on the island, regardless of their origin). Nor is it related to the Irish name Malachy, which means “second.” Malachi was an Old Testament prophet. There are actually several different etymological pathways you can follow for that name. But Molokhia means royal, the “food of kings.”

It is doubtful that you will find fresh jute leaves where you live. Instead, find a Middle Eastern, African, Caribbean, Taiwanese or Vietnamese restaurant that serves jute soup. It’s delicious.