A version of this piece appeared several years ago in The Art of Eating, the fine quarterly newsletter edited (and written in part) by Ed Behr.
I’m publishing it now in response to a fascinating post on Cynthia Bertelsen’s website, Gherkins & Tomatoes (gherkinstomatoes.com) about Egyptians and their food in France during the Napoleonic wars:
Romanni was my delightful and intelligent guide on a trip through Egypt from Cairo to Luxor; he had promised to find me an interesting cook, someone who would explain the intricacies of Egyptian cuisine. Romanni, who belongs to the Coptic minority that treads a narrow and precarious path in modern Egypt, in fact did find me a cook who was also a Copt. Her name was Nadia Fars Abd el Masih; she was the mother of Romanni’s friends Ramone and Nasrine. A middle-aged widow, Nadia lives with Ramone in a modest flat tucked away from the tourist excesses of Luxor and teaches cooking at a girls’ elementary school. Like many fine teachers, she exudes a smiling, utterly disarming competence, along with a confidence that you, the student, can do just as well — with a little practice. She was a study in brown and gold: her chestnut hair piled in a complicated crown over her Egyptian-brown skin, her dark brown velvet djellabah matching bright eyes that sparkled behind gold-rimmed spectacles.
Earlier that afternoon, Ramone and I had gone food shopping in the open-air markets that run through a warren of back alleys of Luxor. The menu for the feast was double: melokhia (also variously written melokhya, mlokhia, mouloukhiyah, and so on), a combination of rice with stewed chicken or rabbit topped with a thick green sauce; and hamam bil frik, succulent little pigeons stuffed with frik, or green wheat, harvested before it is fully ripe and then roasted over a smoky fire.
Melokhia is the feast meal par excellence in Egypt and the only dish that qualifies as national, although it’s also made in Lebanon, Palestine, and, under a somewhat different guise, in Tunisia. The name means “mallow” and refers both to the dish itself and to the leafy green plant from which the sauce is made. The plant melokhia is a common potherb in Egypt, related to okra, and like okra it contributes a certain viscosity (some would say sliminess) to sauces in which it’s stewed. This viscosity, I find, runs like an undercurrent through African cooking below the Sahara. Perhaps, like much of Egyptian culture, melokhia was carried down the Nile from somewhere in Black Africa.
Since fresh melokhia is available only from April through October, we bought dried, which, Ramone said, is an acceptable substitute. More than acceptable, since in any case the fresh green melokhia must be washed, stripped of its center rib, and dried several days in the sun before it is ready to use. Ramone, who does most of the shopping for the family, selected melokhia that looked clean, without a lot of dust and stems, and that, despite being dried, had a good green color. He was equally attentive to the quality of the frik, which can have lots of tiny stones in it, and to the onions, garlic, tomatoes, and other ingredients that we needed.
Then we went looking for the pigeon man, who, Ramone said, would have both pigeons to stuff with frik and rabbits for the melokhia. And so he did — live pigeons cooing seductively from a crowded wooden cage that the pigeon man bore atop his turbanned head as he walked the back streets of Luxor, far from the temples and tourists of the riverfront, looking for buyers. The rabbits, also alive, he kept in a hole-in-the-wall storeroom below street level, to which he led us. Ramone palpated the animals’ musculature with his long, careful fingers, selecting eight pigeons and two rabbits that met his standards.
As a meat-lover, I accept the inescapable fact that the very act of eating meat is a kind of murder. But intellectual grasp is not the same thing as seeing your dinner slaughtered before your eyes. We took our livestock to the open-air butcher down an alley behind a set of abandoned buildings whose ochre walls were marked with the red hands of Fatima. They are common throughout the Arab world, a protection against the evil eye, but here it looked as if the butcher had dipped his own hands in blood. The creatures were killed, each with a single knife thrust; thoroughly bled, to the delight of several neighborhood cats; and then stripped of fur and feathers before being handed back to us, their bodies still warm. We took them to Nadia’s kitchen to be transformed.
Nadia’s kitchen was typical — small enough for two people to keep bumping into each other (though her pregnant daughter Nasrine took up a good deal of space), with a diminutive four-burner stove and a batterie de cuisine that consisted of some dented aluminum pots and pans and a few blunt knives. The cupboard doors were so askew they had to be rehung each time they were opened. In this awkward space, the two women cheerfully produced a meal for eight people in just two and a half hours — and did so, moreover, calmly and without the slightest trace of frenzy.
The rabbits, cut in pieces, and the whole pigeons were rubbed all over with a marinade of salt, pepper, ground cardamom, grated onion, and lemon juice, and left for an hour or so. Then Nadia put the rabbits into a dry pan along with the small amount of liquid from the marinade, and sweated them over a medium flame until both the marinade and all the liquid released by the rabbits had evaporated. Then she added a couple of spoonfuls of semna, the traditional cooking fat up and down the Nile — clarified butter fermented to develop a cheesy flavor just this side of rancidity. The best, she said, is semna baladi, made with butter from the water buffalo, or gamoosa, but cow’s milk butter will do.
While the rabbits cooked in their broth, the two women stuffed the little pigeons amply with frik that had been covered with water, brought to a boil, and set aside to soften before mixing with a couple of chopped red onions, salt, and lots and lots of ground black pepper, probably the most used (or overused) spice in the Egyptian kitchen, unless it’s crushed dried chilies. To the rabbits were added the stuffed pigeons, their naked heads tucked under the broth. It isn’t necessary for a proper melokhia to have pigeons, Nadia explained, but in such a small space, it’s more efficient to cook everything together in one pot.
The rabbits and pigeons, removed from the broth, were browned in more semna and arranged on serving platters. The rice had already been steamed. Crushed tomatoes and pounded cloves of garlic were added to the broth. Finally, the critical event: the melokhia, swollen with liquid added from time to time, went in, and from this moment, Nadia said, it must be watched very, very carefully: “It mustn’t ever, ever come to a boil. Otherwise, it will separate and be ruined.” As soon as the thick green sauce started to bubble delicately, ever so faintly, along the side of the pot, she whisked it away to the table where the feasters were assembled.
Melokhia is a strange taste, I admit, a little musty perhaps, and not to everyone’s liking. But I love it, and so did everyone else at the table, which included three other non-Egyptians like me. It’s a darkly ancient flavor that, I am persuaded, long-ago Egyptians, some of whose tombs we had visited that morning, might well have enjoyed. Apart from the rice and the tomatoes, both of which came to Egypt later, it was a sumptuous dish that could have been on the table of any well-to-do Eighteenth Dynasty family. We ate it in the Egyptian fashion, dipping spoons full of rice into the melokhia stew. It was delicious — not, of course, for unadventurous palates. But those who relish subtle flavors and bold textures may welcome an opportunity to savor a link with another place and time.
If you can’t get rabbits, substitute chickens. I use olive oil in place of Nadia’s semna, which is hard to find and a strange taste for non-Egyptians. In North America, you can find dried melokhia in Lebanese and Syrian neighborhood stores. One caution: look for whole rather than crushed leaves; the best quality, quite honestly, is not Egyptian, which tends to be gritty from the desert sand that filters over everything there.
- 2 medium rabbits, each cut into 6 pieces
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- 1 medium onion, grated or finely chopped
- 1/4 cup (50 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 quarts (2 liters) chicken stock or plain water
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 whole peeled onions
- 4 cups (1 liter) dried melokhia
- 2 tablespoons chopped garlic
- 1 cup (250 ml) plain tomato sauce (or canned tomatoes crushed and mixed with some of their liquid to make 1 cup)
- for the rice:
- 2 cups (400 gr) medium- or long-grain rice
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 cups (1 liter) water, or 1 cup rabbit stock and 3 cups water
- salt to taste
Sprinkle the rabbit pieces with salt and lots of pepper. Combine the cardamom, lemon juice, and grated or chopped onion, and rub the pieces well. Set aside to marinate for an hour or more.
When ready to cook, heat 2 tablespoons of oil in the bottom of a heavy pan and brown the rabbit pieces. When all the pieces are browned, scrape in any remaining marinade. Add the stock or water, the bay leaves, and the whole onions. Bring to a simmer, cover, and let simmer for 40 minutes to 1 hour, or until the rabbit is cooked through and tender. When the rabbit is done, taste the stock, and add salt and pepper if you wish.
Meanwhile, clean the melokhia as carefully as you can, sifting it through a colander to get rid of stems and other detritus. (From 4 cups of melokhia, you may end up with only 2 cups clean, but that’s all you need.) Put the cleaned melokhia in a bowl and add 2 cups of hot stock from the rabbits, stirring it in thoroughly. Cover the bowl and leave the melokhia to swell.
Pound the garlic in a mortar with about 1/2 tablespoon of salt to make a paste. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil to a frying pan and set over medium-low heat. When the oil is hot, stir in the garlic paste and cook, stirring, until it starts to turn blond. Immediately stir in the tomato sauce, and cook gently until it becomes very thick, then stir in 1 to 1 1/2 cups of stock from the rabbits. Leave to simmer gently while you remove the rabbit pieces from the stock. Set the pieces aside, moistened with a little stock, in a warm place until ready to serve. Remove and discard the bay leaves and onions from the stock.
Prepare the rice as you would a pilaf, first rinsing the rice thoroughly to rid it of any starch, and using water or water mixed with 1 cup of rabbit stock to make the rice, adding the oil as well. Stir the tomato-garlic sauce into the rabbit stock, cover the pan, and simmer while the rice cooks. When the rice is ready, stir 2 more cups of stock into the melokhia, then stir the melokhia into the remaining stock in the pot. Heat the melokhia to the merest simmer, then remove from the heat. Serve the rice and rabbit together in soup plates, spooning the melokhia liberally over the top. Serves six.
Variations: In Lebanon, melokhia is often served with Arab bread (pita), split and the halves toasted until crisp in a hot oven, in the bottom of the soup plate. The rice is piled on top, then the rabbit on top of that, and finally the melokhia over all. An optional garnish is a mix of equal quantities of finely chopped green onions and green coriander (cilantro) mixed with a small amount of white wine vinegar, just enough so the aromatics float.