|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
22 - 28 November 2001
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A cultivated taste
Last week I had my first encounter with mulukhiya. Or more precisely, it was my first encounter with the leaves themselves, naked, completely unadorned. It was long in the coming, this meeting, and somehow it seemed appropriate that it should occur during the month of Ramadan. For among the numerous facets of that month is an undoubted focus on food. Not that I was unfamiliar with the stuff. No one can visit Egypt for any length of time without at some point having a bowl of the green soup placed before them.
I have never come across the stuff in its natural habitat, stumbled through fields of the crops, though I have eaten it in homes, ordered it in restaurants, and the experiences, it must be said, have been varied. The first time was perhaps the least satisfactory. A decade ago, a village near Minya, and the mulukhiya was as slimy as slimy could be. My suspicion was that it had been dressed with raw egg whites, and I could not quite work out why the whites were not beginning to solidify given the heat of the dish. Discrete inquiries followed, and that, I was told, was the nature of the beast (or vegetable). But not so. Mulukhiya, I subsequently discovered, is an object of enduring fascination for its many consumers, among whom I soon detected an unseemly factionalism.
For mulukhiya provokes the kind of conversations that are normally restricted to French dinner tables, the kind of conversations that can continue for hours, the object being to verify the exact provenance of a particular cheese and involving, in the process of site identification, endless anecdotes about every single occasion every one of your fellow diners had encountered a cheese of similar quality. In the case of mulukhiya the best memories tend to be located in the distant past, which is hardly surprising since few experiences lend themselves so readily to nostalgia than that of eating. It really is an example of terminal cliché, of grandmother knowing best.
Listen carefully to one of these conversations, which if they do not involve cheese will involve the sourcing of olive oil -- down to the grove and date of pressing -- or the procuring of fowl fed on goodness knows what, or arcane notes on the hanging and preparation of ducks, and you hardly dare step into a kitchen, let alone place something in a pan. People can discourse for hours on the preparation of an omlette, terrorising anyone who takes such expertise seriously into never again breaking an egg.
But cooking, in the end, and like so much in life, benefits enormously from a little demystification. And after more than a decade of encountering other people's versions of mulukhiya it was surely time to try my own. So off I went, in search of the coveted leaf.
First the stock. Simmer simmer simmer goes the chicken, and being no purist, having no recipe tailored specifically to mulukhiya, I make the chicken stock I usually make as a soup base. I add bay leaves, an onion, a carrot or two, a little pepper, a few stalks of celery. As an after thought I throw in rather more than a few cloves of garlic, and leave it to its own devices for an hour or so. After which comes the problem. For having carefully washed and picked over the mulukhiya arrives the dilemma of chopping. And I realise I do not possess a makhrata, one of those curved, two-handled knife blades, an essential feature of the well- equipped kitchen. (There is, incidentally, a distinguished violinist in Cairo who in his youth was a boxing champion. He has retained the build and gait of a boxer, the latter increasingly evident as he proceeds through the more energetic pieces in the repertoire and his students, for even hopeful prodigies are schoolboys at heart, have nick-named him makhrata.) Without said implement, I compromise on a reasonably coarse chopping of the leaves, convincing myself that a fine mincing would serve only to release the slimy gloop that I am determined to avoid.
Strain the stock, add more garlic, lots more, finely chopped, and then the leaves. At this point I realise just how much I am improvising, but it is too late to turn back. And back on simmer.
Cooking for yourself may not be much fun, and can often seem an extravagant use of time. But cooking for others something you have never cooked before is courting disaster, so this particular batch, the first ever I can truly call my own, is destined to remain a purely private (fingers crossed) pleasure. And truth be told, I am pleased with the eventual result, served in a bowl, with bits of the bird that was the base of the original stock.
Having let slip in the office the fact that I had actually cooked mulukhiya, the news is greeted with general incredulity by my colleagues. Indeed, there were moments when I felt I stood accused of something faintly sacrilegious, or at the very least an undue presumption.
And how was it, they asked. I stood my ground. It was delicious, I pronounced. And the consistency, because there is an art to mulukhiya you know.
And then followed a discussion of the correct consistency of the soup. Apparently, in the hands of the inexpert there is a danger that the leaves will all sink to the bottom, whereas they should be evenly dispersed throughout the liquid, on which point I thought I had scored rather well.
And how much coriander did you add?
After the presumption of the act, my questioner was presenting a golden opportunity for self-effacement. I had not used coriander, though something in the tone of the question suggested that were I to admit this any kudos that might have accrued would immediately evaporate. But admit it I did, with an irrefutable get out clause, a perfect face-safer. But my grandmother never used coriander. A bare-face lie, of course, but enough to stall the questions, enough to gain a breathing space.
Eventually the question arrives: What, you have mulukhiya in England?
I nod. And I suspect there is mulukhiya in England, though it is known as Jews' mallow. Next, I shall tackle colocasia, which looks surprisingly like a Jerusalem artichoke.
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