Lost in Translation

You say potato, I say po-TAH-to.

You say “Jew mallow”, I say “excuse me?”

The other day I saw a box of dried leaves labeled “Jew mallow” in the supermarket, and was baffled. What on earth was a mallow, and what made it Jewish? They looked like oversized tea leaves, in a box big enough to make about a thousand cups of tea. Curious.

fresh “Jew’s Mallow” (photo courtesy Wikipedia)

Then last week I saw orange-fleshed sweet potatoes in the supermarket, a special import for Thanksgiving (local sweet potatoes have white flesh and are less flavorful). These were labeled “SWEET POTATOES JEW.”

This in Lebanon, a country that is not even on speaking terms with its Jewish neighbor to the south. What gives? Are mallow and yams some kind of Jewish specialty?

When in doubt, Google to the rescue. According to The Free Dictionary, Jew’s mallow is “an annual herb (Corchorus olitorius) cultivated in Syria and Egypt as a pot herb, and in India for its fiber.” Some say that the name “Jew’s mallow” comes from the term “jute mallow,” while others assert that the name for its role as a food staple in ancient Jewish cuisine. It’s a cousin of the plant that used to be an ingredient of marshmallow. It’s also a bit like spinach, and is sometimes also called Egyptian spinach.

Here in Lebanon, Jew mallow is normally called by its Arabic name, mouloukhieh. It is used in a dish of the same name, together with rice, and chicken or meat. I have yet to try it, because mouloukhieh is one of myriad Lebanese specialties that seems to be only be made at home (restaurants generally stick to a repertoire of mezze and grilled meats).

I found a recipe online for the dish. Maybe I’ll try it one day. But I might have the chance a lot sooner if you know of a restaurant in Beirut that serves it….

Lebanese “mouloukhiya” (photo courtesy Wikipedia)

I couldn’t, however, find a mention online of “Jew potatoes” (although I did come up with lots of recipes for latkes using sweet potatoes). I was stumped.

I returned to my grocery store yesterday, looking for those orange-fleshed sweet potatoes to make for Thanksgiving. Panic set in when I realized that the small supply had been wiped out. I resigned myself to a sweet potato quest through the supermarkets of Beirut, and headed to the counter where a young woman weighs and prices your bags of produce.

Next to her scale was a Styrofoam tray of five sweet potatoes wrapped in plastic wrap. I quickly poked through to check if the potato was white or orange inside. Orange! The remaining stock of “Jew potatoes.” We would have my famous Bourbon Yams this Thanksgiving after all.

When the young lady printed my price sticker, I noticed it said “SWEET POTATO JEWELLED.” Wait a minute. So the sign the week before shouldn’t have said “sweet potato Jew,” but “Jewel sweet potato”? (America’s leading sweet potato variety, as I read online.)

Mystery solved.

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7 thoughts on “Lost in Translation

  1. Barb says:

    I stumbled upon your blog by chance. Many Lebanese restaurants offer a daily special of the more home-cooked dishes along with their mezza and mixed grill. You can try Muloukhiyye every Thursday lunch at Karam restaurant (Atrium building) in downtown Beirut, and other dishes on the other weekdays. Sahtein!

  2. cupcakeamy says:

    Thanks for the tip, I will be sure to go and try it!

  3. Barb says:

    Our office is right next door to the restaurant. If you’d like to meet a few other long-term expats in the country, drop by AMIDEAST after your trip to Karam and ask for Barb.

  4. cupcakeamy says:

    Oh, I have met one of your colleagues a couple of times! I will definitely let you know when I get to Karam and come by to meet you, thanks! Long-term expats always have lots of great tips (like this one about where to find mulokhiye). 😉

  5. I adore molokhia! Did you end up trying it at home or in a restaurant ? If you’re not expecting the viscous texture (reminiscent of okra) it can be a turn off for some, but that’s one of the many things I love about this dish.

    • cupcakeamy says:

      Finally got to try it on a Thursday at Karam’s. Went with a few friends, and the kind waiter told us to stop munching on the pita chips that he put at our table once we’d ordered – they were for the moloukhiya. We all really enjoyed it; my Portuguese friend commented that it tasted like something her grandmother would make. Very satisfying home cooking.

  6. caterina says:

    According to me the best mouloukhieh I’ve ever eaten was at Le Chef in Gemmayzeh. I love them also without chicken, only with rise.

    Hy Amy I’m from Italy and I live in Gemmayzeh too, we could organized a coffee at Le Chef to meet us 🙂

    Caterina

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