Tony is all about food. His ongoing food events and special projects have been featured in the press. To learn more, you can view his gallery, read his blog, or simply contact him directly.

Blog Archive Entry


Mloukhiyye at the digital dinner table

I’m back.

The situation in Syria has gone from bad, it skipped worse, and plunged straight into bleak. I needed time to wrap my head around the events of the last seventeen months.

Syria has been on my mind since the day I evacuated, April 26, 2011. My friends Bassel, Zaki, and Karam drove me to a bus station in the outskirts of Aleppo where I boarded an almost empty bus to Lebanon at 2AM. I never imagined things would get this bad. I read newspaper articles, blogs, Facebook posts; I watch videos on YouTube, listen to news reports; I follow vetted Twitter users who are inside Syria; I call friends and relatives on a weekly basis — and still, it is difficult to know exactly what is happening inside the country. My heart aches for all the Syrians who have lost their lives and livelihood during this bloody conflict. And my thoughts and prayers go to all those who remain trapped inside.

The reason I decided to write a blog post today, however, is not to discuss politics — at least not directly. I’ve always described my food blog as part of my home. It’s the dining room table where I invite readers to pull up a chair. I share stories, photos, and recipes and start a conversation around food and culture. People from around the world can chime in with a simple comment. I almost let myself forget how incredible that feeling is. The feeling of connecting with another person — of breaking bread across the internet. With that, I want to open my door once more and invite you to my digital dinner table. Please, come in. Let me get you something to drink.

Tea with friends by the historic citdael in Aleppo
tea
Arabic coffee
Arabic coffee

Part of the inspiration for today’s blog post came from the book, Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love and War by Annia Ciezadlo. The book was published February 1, 2011, while I was still in Syria, but it wasn’t until I arrived to Lebanon that I was able to find a copy at a book store in Beirut. If you haven’t read it already, add it to your summer reading list. Annia writes about the conflicts in Lebanon and the war in Iraq through intimate stories of people living their lives in a war-torn region. She puts faces to part of the world that can often seem distant and disconnected. Annia writes, “if you want to understand war, you have to understand everyday life first.” I agree.

Lunch in the darkness
lunch

This is a photo from a friend on Twitter, @HumanGraces. She lives in Aleppo and tweets (mostly in Arabic) about everything from politics to food and family, including random musings from her brothers. On February 5, 2012 she tweeted this image with the caption, غدا اليوم عالعتمة, meaning, today, lunch in the dark.

Electricity in Aleppo (at that time) used to get cut eight hours each day; usually four hours in the early afternoon and four hours in the evening. When @HumanGraces tweeted this image my mouth watered, but I also felt a strange sense of nostalgia. There was kibbeh (a classic Levantine meat and bulgur patty), mloukhiyye served alongside rice, and a big bowl of house salad that completes every meal in Syria. That’s when I noticed something else that was interesting, hidden in the shadows of the frame. Those were legs and hands of people sitting together around a dinner table. In the middle of a war. I sent @HumanGraces a Direct Message (DM) on Twitter to ask what the meal was like. Was it quiet? Did politics dominate the conversation? Any resentment or anger? @HumanGraces described the emotions surrounding the meal as a blend of helplessness and joy. They laughed and, she confessed, one of her aunts even ululated. If you only follow the politics and conflicts of the Middle East, or any region, you can easily glance over moments like this; the story of a family that gathers for lunch, clinging to any sense of normalcy in a world that seems to be falling apart.

There is a popular saying across the Middle East that says, يوم عسل ويوم بصل (yom a’asal w yom basal), which means, “one day is like honey, another is like an onion.” This is the expression Annia used as part of the title to her memoir. It’s a saying that captures perfectly the blend of emotions: helplessness and joy; an optimism for a better tomorrow. An expression that swallows pain and allows life to continue. In conflicts like the one in Syria, a better tomorrow is usually the most any family can pray for. When I speak with friends and relatives in Aleppo, a lot of them will use the expression, “الله يستر” (Allah yestor) or “may God forbid/protect us.” This means, forbid the bad from happening to us, and thereby protect us from evil. As the conflict in Syria progresses and the country continues to crumble, I understand how this is the best any person, on either side of the conflict, can hope for.

One of the dishes @HumanGraces had at the table is a classic leafy broth called mloukhiyye (ملوخية). This dish originated in Ancient Egypt where it is said to have been a meal prepared for kings (or pharaohs?). The idea being that mloukhiyye (ملوخية) evolved from the word mloukiyye (ملوكية) (with a k instead of kh), which shares the linguistic tri-literal root ma-la-ka (ملك) — the Arabic word for king. Whether or not this etymology is accurate, I can certainly see why a king would love this meal. According to this Wikipedia article on Mloukhiyye, “the leaves are rich in betacarotene, iron, calcium, Vitamin C and more than 32 vitamin and minerals and trace elements.”

mise en place
mise en place

Mloukhiyye leaves can give off a slimy texture, particularly when they’re used fresh or frozen. The mloukhiyye I had in Syria was prepared at home from whole, dried mloukhiyye leaves. The cook explained to me that her kids, who are around my age, would not eat it any other way. This was my first time eating mloukhiyye and I loved it. There was barely any slimy texture to the leaves. In Egypt, however, traditional mloukhiyye recipes call for the fresh leaves to be finely chopped, which tends to release more of the mucilaginous texture, resembling that of okra.

simple seasoning: cumin & garlic
cumin and garlic

Once you are able to find mloukhiyye leaves, the dish comes together fairly easily. Start off by heating up some ground coriander and garlic in a medium pot. This will remove some of the edge from the garlic and it will also bring out the essential oils in the ground coriander. You’ll know when it’s ready; the scent of coriander and garlic will perfume your kitchen. If your nose is stuffy that day, set your timer for 5 minutes, making sure to stir regularly so the garlic does not brown.

A splash of lemon
A splash of lemon

Once you add the broth and the mloukhiyye leaves to the pot, bring the mixture to a boil and finish it off with a splash of lemon juice. This is supposed to help cut down on the slimy texture. How much this actually helps, I’m not sure, but it does add a wonderful bright burst of flavor to the dish.

Minced onions
Minced onions

In the Levant it is traditional to serve mloukhiyye with minced onions in vinegar — like a quick pickle. The acid notes in the vinegar, like the lemon juice, help highlight the flavors of the dish.

A quick onion pickle
A quick onion pickle

At this point you’re ready to eat. Serve the mloukhiyye and rice in separate bowls alongside the pickled onions for guests to add as much as they would like.

Serve separately: mloukhiyye & rice
mloukhiyye and rice

Mloukhiyye

yields approx 4-6 servings

Components

  • 3 cups of chicken broth
  • 1 package of frozen mloukhiyye leaves (400g)
  • poached chicken
  • 1 Tbsp coriander, ground
  • 6-8 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 3/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1 small onion
  • juice of 1/2 a lemon

Putting them all together

  1. In a medium pot over medium heat stir ground coriander and minced garlic in some butter or olive oil until fragrant.
  2. Add the frozen mloukhiyye leaves and boiling chicken stock.
  3. Taste for seasoning. Add poached chicken meat and remove from heat.
  4. Add diced onion to vinegar and set aside until needed.
  5. Serve mloukhiyye over a bed of rice with a side of quick-pickled onions.

Print

Mloukhiyye with rice (ملوخية بالرز)
mloukhiyye with rice

Thank you for everyone who wrote in with comments and emails asking about the situation in Syria. It has meant a lot. I continue to hope for a speedy resolution — الله يستر (Allah yestor).

Posted in entrees, Fulbright, Middle Eastern, savory, soups by Antonio Tahhan on August 1st, 2012. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


11 Responses to “Mloukhiyye at the digital dinner table”

Sil BsAs Says:

I live in Argentina and even if we have a lot of problems and insecurity nothing compares to war. For me it’s kind of difficult to understand politics and all that’s happening in Syria but I have to tell you I’m really glad to see a new post here and knowing that you’re ok. All my best wishes for your family and friends from this side of the world!

rzeyrek Says:

Merhaba!Described a very nice.I’m so glad you back.I can not wait for the new post.Thanks!

Antonio Tahhan Says:

Thank you for the comment and the well wishes, Sil BsAs. It’s not just you; the politics of Syria and the greater Middle East are as complicated as they get. I’m glad I was able to live in Aleppo and experience the natural beauty that lies underneath dark clouds of politics. I do my best to showcase those experiences here on my blog. I plan to post more often now. Thanks for stopping by!

Marhaba, Rzeyrek! Thank you for the comment. Stay tuned for more posts coming up!

a Says:

Helpless laughter and lunch in the dark, this was beautifully written. It is wonderful to see you posting again. I’ve been reading your blog for a couple of years now, I hope to be reading for quite a while longer. All the best to you!

Silvia Says:

So lovely to have you blogging again (I saw your other social media posts but was missing you on the blogosphere). You’ve been on my mind-I know it’s been hard for you the last year and a half. And it still is.

Thank you for being generous to us your readers by offering of your heart, mind and beautiful writing—and, of course, succulent food.

miriam Says:

great to see you post again..those kibbeh look so so good..what are the dark swirls on the rices surface?

Antonio Tahhan Says:

Thank you “a” and Siliva!

Thanks, Miriam. I believe the dark swirls on the surface of the rice are from ground allspice. It’s meant to give the rice added flavor.

Keghani Says:

Mmm. Craving Mloukhiyye now.
Next time you make this, try having toasted pita “croutons” (like in fattoush) as a side as well as the onions. My favorite way is to layer the bowl with the croutons, then top with rice, Mloukhiyye, onions, in that order.

Antonio Tahhan Says:

I will have to try it! I stil have another pack of frozen mloukhiyye in my freezer. Thanks, Keghani!

K. Nekry Says:

Glad you’re back and blogging again! This blog has been a favorite of mine for a while now: your recipes and stories are top-notch.

Strange coincidence: today–before reading your latest post–I was looking at seeds on the Kitazawa Seed Co. site, and came across a plant called Molokeyhia (Corchorus olitorius). Is this the same plant as the one in your recipe? I’d like to try and grow it next year.

The news breaks my heart a little bit more every day. Let me leave it at that. My words are inadequate.

James Says:

Hello Tony,

I have occasionly read and enjoyed your blog; thank you for taking the time.

I grew up in Damascus eating mloukhiyyeh fixed with lamb only; my mom never used chicken. I think chicken in mloukhiyyeh, at least in Damascus, is a relatively new addition. I have had the chicken mloukhiyyeh, and I like it fine.

Like others, I will purposely refrain from addressing the masacar in Syria; I could never do the subject justice.


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