Fifi Knows Best, the Molokheyya Edition

Thu, Jan. 12, 2012
Making molokheyya with my mother was not as simple as I bargained for
By Rehaam Romero
  Contrary to what many might think, my mother Fifi didn't really teach me to cook. Sure she went through basics with me and taught me a cornucopia of recipes, but most of these were relayed in passing or over the phone. I was too stubborn to let anyone teach me things and she was too impatient to teach. It was only after I got married that I began to really crave Egyptian food and began asking my mother for her coveted recipes. With her guidance, I made sayadiyya fish, shish tawook, kishk and our signature any-vegetable-in-red-sauce dish. There was one thing, however, that I knew I would never be able to tackle on my own with a list of telephonically relayed instructions: molokheyya. You know how everyone thinks their mom makes the best molokheyya? Well they're lying because Fifi, hands down, makes the best molokheyya, which is why I knew making it on my own would be futile. Molokheyya, for those who don't know, is a kind of soup made with shredded jew's mallow leaves and flavored with garlic. Lots of garlic. The ingredients couldn't be simpler: molokheyya leaves, stock, garlic, coriander and ghee. However, the margin of error is great and the precision required is even greater, at least according to Fifi. “Tell your magazine friends that molokheyya is the easiest thing to make if they follow my instructions,” my mother bellowed in her kitchen last week. “Mama, this is not for my magazine friends, this is for my food blog, remember?” “So this is going online? I'm going to be famous?” “Yes Mama.” “Stop lying to me. I know what a blog is and I know it won't make me famous.” This wasn't going to be easy, I thought. I knew how to make molokheyya, but I wanted the nitty-gritty details, exact measurements; the science of it all. Let me tell you now, if it were up to my mother, there would be none of these things because measuring to an Egyptian cook is for failures, and my mother certainly wasn't going to encourage people to be failures, she said. “You have built in tools for measuring things, your hands, your eyes, your nose and your mouth. If you use those things you will never have to worry about anything turning out badly,” so says Fifi. Well, we can't all be master chefs, Mama, so I came armed with a notepad, a measuring cup and spoons. To start, I was given the task of shredding the leaves with a mezzaluna, which my mother believes is the only way to shred molokheyya. “A food processor will grind most leaves to mush before some leaves even get a chance to become chopped up,” she told me as I took out every shred of stress and anger out on that molokheyya. You move the blades back and forth in a seesaw motion over the leaves until their mucilaginous properties emerge to make a paste that still has plenty of noticeable bits of leaf in it. It's this sliminess that will give your molokheyya body and thickness. Then we made our stock. My mother always starts with a whole chicken or duck or rabbits and boils them to heck to extract the stock. Because she was trying extra hard to be helpful, this is what she had to say about the amount of stock you need to use: “For half a kilo of molokheyya, you put your chicken in the pot and fill it with water until it reaches the top of the thigh.” “What about size of the pot, the chicken and any water that's about to evaporate as it boils? What if you use rabbit or duck?” I asked frantically. My mother looked at me sternly and said, “You ask too many questions, just measure the amount when I'm done then you can write it down in your silly yellow-paged notebook. Who writes on yellow paper anyway?” Once we'd made our stock, we added some crushed garlic and coriander that my mother made me grind to a paste in a mortar and pestle or 'eed wi hoon. I was beginning to suspect she was getting more out of this cookalong than I was, because I was clearly the braun in the kitchen that day. We added enough salt so the stock was just ever so slightly too salty for our taste because, apparently, you can't salt molokheyya after it's done or it will split. As our stock bubbled, things began to move quickly. Molokheyya was dropped in and whisked vigorously, ghee was heated in a small pan and more of the garlic-coriander paste was added until fragrant (this is the infamous ta'leyya). Then as soon as the molokheyya came to a boil, the ta'leyya was tossed in, making its familiar sizzle and finally releasing that comforting molokheyya scent into the kitchen. Once in, the ta'leyya and molokheyya mixture was given a quick mix and the heat was immediately turned off. According to Fifi, mixing past this point will make the molokheyya split. Incidentally, if you want to reheat molokheyya, bringing it to a boil will also make it split. Now you know why I needed my “silly yellow-paged notebook.” So with garlic fingers and aching mezzaluna shoulders I took a spoon to the green concoction. It was thick, pungent, hot and the epitome of comfort food. My mother spooned it over some plain white rice, leaned back on the counter and said, “Ya salam 'aleiki ya Fifi. Fannana.” (Fifi, you're an artist). Yes Mama, you certainly are a molokheya artist. Serves four Ingredients 1/2 kg molokheyya leaves 4 cups chicken, rabbit or duck stock Salt, to taste 3 medium-sized garlic cloves 1 tablespoon dried coriander 1 tablespoon ghee 1. Using a mezzaluna, chop the leaves until they form a paste. 2. Boil your stock and add enough salt so it’s just slightly too salty. 3. Crush the garlic cloves until they form a paste and add the coriander. 4. Add half the garlic and coriander paste into the boiling stock. 5. Scoop up the molokheyya paste and quickly whisk it into the stock. It should be thick. 6.While the molokheyya comes to a boil, melt the ghee in a saucepan. 7.Toss in the rest of the garlic paste until the garlic becomes fragrant, but does not burn. This is your ta'leyya. 8.Once the molokheyya boils, stir in the ta’leyya. Once it is combined, immediately turn the heat off and stop stirring, or the molokheyya will split. 9.Serve with rice, bread and, if you must, Egyptian “hot sauce”, the ubiquitous tomato, garlic and vinegar sauce served on koshary and fatta.    
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