The Missing Ingredient


Photo by Paul Wachter

There was a period of several years when I would eat lunch at a certain restaurant every week and order the same dish. The restaurant was called Le Chef, and the dish was called mulukhiya. If you haven't lived in Beirut, Lebanon, where I worked as a journalist for several years, there's no reason you should know about Le Chef, an informal restaurant in the then-sleepy, now-vibrant neighborhood of Gemmayzeh. But it's a pity many of you may not have heard of mulukhiya, Thursday's plat du jour, a dish common to Lebanon (and other parts of the Arab world) that rarely appears in Arab restaurants in this country.

"It's a shame--there are Lebanese dishes that haven't really translated to the American experience," says Phillipe Massoud, the owner of ilili, an upscale Lebanese restaurant in Manhattan. "You'll make mulukhiya for the staff meal, but you won't offer it to customers."

What is mulukhiya? Specifically, the word refers to a plant--Corchorus olitorius--whose leaves resemble spinach and form the centerpiece of a stew that shares the same name. The leaves are chopped and boiled in chicken stock with garlic, coriander and other spices. The chicken and lamb typically are boiled or pan fried apart from the mulukhiya--though not always--and then everything is poured over rice.

It's a delicious mess, and for the life of me I can't figure out why it's so hard to find in Lebanese restaurants in the United States.

On top of this, you dump a handful of dried pita shards and a few spoonfuls of chopped onions drenched in vinegar. It's a delicious mess, and for the life of me I can't figure out why it's so hard to find in Lebanese restaurants in the United States.

"For one, the vegetable is not widely grown in the United States, so you have to get it frozen or dried," says Dany Abi-Najm, the president of Lebanese Taverna Group, which operates six restaurants and four cafés in the Washington, D.C. area--none of which currently offer mulukhiya.

Abi-Najm says he's offered it several times in the past, but it never caught on. "When we tried explaining it to Americans, the only English translation I've come across is 'Jew's mallow'," he says. "And a lot of people don't know what to make of that."

That's not surprising given the tense relations between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East. And one is tempted to suspect a sinister motive behind the English coinage. But in fact, the name stems from the simple observation that Jewish communities in the region more often used mulukhiya in their cooking: "The leaves of C. olitorious are used in Egypt and adjacent countries as a pot herb," noted the 1913 edition of The [Encyclopedia] Americana. "From the fact that the Jews thus employ them they are sometimes called Jews' mallow." The Oxford English Dictionary traces the term to an 18th century gardening dictionary.

Massoud, who got his start with a restaurant in Washington called Neyla, blames Lebanese chefs for not introducing Americans to more exotic native dishes. (Shish barak--meat dumplings in a hot, thick yogurt broth served over rice--is another wonderful dish that's not often found in Lebanese restaurants over here.) Massoud has a friend who grows mulukhiya in upstate New York, and he says he's going to add the dish to ilili's menu in the fall. When he does, I'll pay the restaurant my first visit.

You can occasionally find the vegetable mulukhiya in its fresh form in New York's Chinese markets, where it's called Filipino spinach. You can find the dried or frozen variety in Arab grocery stores.

To make the stew, try this recipe, with the following modifications: instead of dicing chicken, use bone-in chicken leg (including thighs) and a half pound of lamb shank sliced into 1/4 inch-thick slabs.