I come from a diverse Middle Eastern and European family: born in Egypt to a lovely Egyptian/Austrian mom (her mother was Jewish; her father was Coptic Egyptian). My father had an Italian mother and a Greek Orthodox father from Jerusalem.
A special family dish was molokhia, made from the saw-toothed leaves of the jute plant and served with chicken. The recipe is said to date back to ancient Egypt. I can still smell the garlic and onions being sautéed with olive oil and coriander, the chicken in the pot. But first things first: Mom and I had the messy job of spreading newspaper on the balcony to “ntf’” (pluck) the leaves off their stems.
We would pluck away, chatting and laughing, about anything and nothing. Mom had a beautiful voice and loved to sing as we worked, whether the popular music of a famous Egyptian entertainer named Om El Kalsoom, or French songs, even a Doris Day song called “Que Sera Sera.” I loved that song (“Whatever will be, will be”). I’d do a little dance to it, and my sister would join in.
Once the leaves were plucked, we would finely chop them with a traditional mezzaluna: a half-moon-shaped blade with two knobs to hold while rocking the blade back and forth. Mom boiled the chicken to flavor the broth, then removed it for roasting, and when I added the chopped jute leaves to the soup, I watched it turned the classic green of molokhia. Our dog Mookie sniffed around for scraps and sometimes got lucky with pieces of chicken from the soup.
We finished the meal preparation with fresh onion and vinegar dressing and toasted Arabic bread. My sister and I set the table, and Mom called out “Yala!” (in Arabic) or “Allons-y" (French) or “A mangiare” (Italian). In any language, the words mean: Hurry, let’s eat.
Mom learned the languages from her travels and experiences. Egypt, at the time of King Farouk, was very cosmopolitan. It was and is common to know more than one language. During her youth, she went to French Catholic school. I remember her mentioning something about a photograph I saw of my Jewish grandma, Nona Victorine. I asked why someone had scribbled around her neck in the picture. Mom explained that she had done it to hide the Star of David Nona was wearing, concerned about any possible anti-Semitic reaction.
In the Middle East (and in our extended family), we were considered European Egyptians. We teased each other about our differences and were disappointed by some interfaith marriages, but we still accepted each other. There would be times of disowning, but that would not last long. My mom was the glue that held us together—a great matriarch. People would go to her for advice and permission.
I inherited my mom’s mezzaluna after she passed away. I will always remember her and continue to make her iconic dish. Molokhia brought all of us together.
Jessica Jacob is an actress and a teacher specializing in learning disabilities in Great Britain.
1/2 head garlic, peeled and chopped
1 T. butter
2 - 3 t. ground coriander
3 c. chicken broth
14 oz. frozen molokhia, thawed
roast chicken, homemade or store-bought
1 onion, peeled and chopped
enough white vinegar to cover onions
salt and pepper to taste
Reserve 1/4 of the chopped garlic.
Over low-medium heat, fry the remaining garlic in the butter for 1 minute.
Add coriander, and fry another minute.
Add garlic to broth.
Add molokhia, and bring to just before the boiling point.
(If it boils, it sinks. If you over-stir, it sinks.)
Cook for 15 - 20 minutes, adding the reserved raw garlic in the last few minutes.
Serve with chicken and chopped onion in vinegar.