Molokia, 'Egyptian Spinach' (Corchorus olitorius, C. capsularis)

Cynthia W. Mueller, Galveston County Master Gardener
Molokia, or 'Egyptian Spinach'

Molokia is a very popular green vegetable in Egypt, where it is considered a 'national dish' and a very ancient one. Legend has it that an early Pharaoh who had become seriously ill consulted a healer who told him to begin a diet of Molokia in order to be cured. The Pharaoh did so, and ever after the herb has been held in high esteem. It is most commonly known in the West by its original Egyptian name, or by the term 'Jews' Mallow.'

Molokia is the leafy green stage of the fiber plant known as jute, which is one of the most important natural fibers, second only to cotton in terms of quantity of production. It is a member of the Mallow family. Typical plants range from 4 to 6 feet in height, are quite bushy, and can be cut again and again in order to harvest the 4 to 6 inch long, simple, lance-shaped leaves. Flowers are small and usually yellow in color. It is usually an annual unless growing in excellent conditions, and is easily grown in the warmer regions of the world.

Methods for cooking Molokia vary according to cultural area. In Egypt the leaves are usually harvested green and the spine down the middle of the leaf is removed. The leaves are then finely chopped with garlic and coriander and made into soups served over rice, often with lamb or beef. In Cairo rabbit is a favorite ingredient. It is sometimes thought of as a spinach substitute. When cooked with broth or water the sap has a mucilaginous quality, unless cooked in butter or oil with very little water clinging to the leaves.

In other parts of the Middle East the leaves are dried, stemmed and ground and the resulting powder stored in tightly closed containers for future use in soups and stews. It is part of the cuisine of the Middle East, West African, India, and Southeast Asia.

Seeds may be ordered from specialty catalogs and planted in springtime in shallow drills in well drained soil. Full sun is the preferred siting. Water and cultivate carefully, thinning the plants to stand two feet or so apart at maturity. The plants will form a bushy “hedge” that may be clipped for fresh leafy material at intervals. Clipping will also facilitate branching. Fertilize moderately. Molokia does not seem to be commonly affected by insects or disease.

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