Pictured: Tahani and Lutfi Othman (far right) harvest Molokhia.
This month we’re taking a journey from Palestine to Ann Arbor with our friends Tahani and Lutfi Othman, to learn about one of their ancestral foods. Tahani and Lutfi both grew up eating Molokhia prepared according to their family's traditional recipe. Molokhia (pronouced “mo-lo-HEY-ah"), also known as Egyptian Spinach, is a popular, well-loved Middle Eastern green. Since Michigan is home to over 200,000 people of Arab descent, we are celebrating one of America's food traditions in our region. We are doing our best to try to learn about and share stories and food traditions of ancestral seeds. It's even more fun when we make some new friends in the process!
For Tahani and Lutfi, this dish/plant has traveled many miles to find its way into their bowls and bellies. Both of their families were forced to flee their homeland of Palestine and become refugees due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lutfi and his family left for Jordan in 1967 during the Six Day War, and in 1982 he applied for school in Michigan, moving shortly thereafter. He already had some relatives living in the area, as well. Tahani and her family moved to Kentucky in 1973 and settled there until she moved to Ann Arbor in 1987. She met Lutfi at a Middle Eastern grocery store in Dearborn in 1996.
Growing up, Tahani recalls her mother growing and cooking all of their food. At that time, in the small town of Union Kentucky, there was no traditional Palestinian food in grocery stores, and her family was unfamiliar with the other food sold there. Eating traditional foods also provided comfort and familiarity in a new place. Her mother had a huge garden (which included Molokhia) and she made fresh pita bread, butter, and cheese. Although most of these foods can now be found in Union today, Molokhia is the exception - Tahani’s mother, currently in her 80s, still grows the leafy plant to this day to preserve and enjoy this food tradition.
The Molokhia plant (Corchorus olitorius) is in the Mallow plant family (related to Okra and Hibiscus), and is grown in Michigan as an annual edible green. If seeds are started inside, plants may reach 6' tall. Most scholars agree that Molokhia's origins lie in Ancient Egypt. In Arabic, the word "Molokhia" refers to both the plant and also a traditional dish prepared with the plant leaves.
When asked about her memories from childhood surrounding the preparation of Molokhia, Tahani states with a smile that it was “crazy!” - it was "such a long process." It takes a lot of hands to harvest the plant and to pick off the leaves, as the stems aren’t eaten. But despite it being such an intensive process, Tahani and Lutfi continue to grow and eat Molokhia to this day, which speaks to the significance of this dish to them. Friend Huda, also of Palestinian descent, speaks of fond memories as children plucking the Molokhia off of the stalks gathered around her aunt who would entertain them with stories - "my aunt never ran out of stories" Huda says.
I had the privilege of learning how to make Molokhia with Lutfi after our conversation about the plant and the dish. I found myself getting dizzy as he spun around the kitchen, grabbing this and that, cutting and mixing, boiling and stirring. There was no "measuring" - it was simply a pinch of this, a dash of that. He didn't follow a recipe. The dish was so ingrained in his memory that he didn't need it. The end result was a delicious, dark green soup, poured over a nourishing mixture of chicken, rice, and a complex array of spices. Check out Lutfi's recipe here.
This year at Nature & Nurture Farm, we grew Molokhia seeds. A few weeks ago, we invited Tahani, Lutfi, along with others of Middle Eastern descent to harvest the plants, tell stories, and pick the leaves together. From that harvest, Lutfi generously made Molokhia and brought it to share at our Harvest Festival. It was a huge success, and was gone before anyone could say “slimy.”
By Grace Pernecky