When Abed Abu-Yousef was exploring the local farmers’ market, he was excited to finally see a plant from his homeland plant, Molokhiya, there.
The plant, which is grown in countries such as Egypt, is a staple food for people in Middle Eastern and North African countries. However, figuring out what to do with it in America is a different story, according to to Michael Adler, director for the Edible Plant Project (EPP).
EPP is a local nursery that provides seeds and plants for people who want to grow their own food. Part of EPP’s storage includes Caribbean, Brazilian and Palestinian native plants.
When coming across the Molokhiya plant, Abu-Yousef said he didn’t think people in Florida knew much about it. He said one of the reasons he thinks it grows well here is due to the temperature.
“Sometimes when people come to this country and they leave behind the plants that they used to eat, they don’t know that they could grow here,” Adler said.
Abu-Yousef, a civil engineering student from Palestine who works as a chef, was contacted by Adler after the director wanted to know what to do with Molokhiya.
When the two discussed the leafy green plant, they decided how to best use it: to start a cooking class.
“It took us a few years to schedule it, ” Adler said, “but I was always like ‘hey, we gotta get you to come and teach us how to eat this.'”
Abu-Yousef, who hasn’t seen his family for 14 years, said preparing for the class required him to recollect a lot of his childhood memories. The fun parts which stuck in his mind helped keep the tradition of cooking the dish alive, he said. In Palestine, family members would gather together to make the soupy delight.
“It would be my mom, my aunt, or my grandmother sitting around in a circle and all of them having the stems of the Molokhiya, and they just throwing the leaves in the circle, and gathering all of them. And when they are done, they start chopping it.”
He said he remembers them using an arc-like special blade to cut the leaves into finely minced pieces.
Miranda Castro, who originally grew the plant in her backyard, said the cooking classes help people realize what to do with the different types of plants EPP provides.
The class, which was called “Warm Season, Leaf Vegetables” had 10 to 15 people, according to Abu-Yousef. While cooking, he said he was reminded of family and friends in Palestine, and the relaxed environment in which Molokhiya was a part of daily life instead of something fancy. In the process of teaching, he was able to educate people about the plant, while sharing fond stories of memories back home.
“Cooking is an art,” he said. “It creates a conversation of different worlds.”
EPP sells plants at the Union Street Farmers’ Market every second Wednesday of the month, according to Adler. He said people from different ethnicities come by and recognize plants that remind them of home.
“Somebody will recognize something and they’ll say ‘Where did you get this? This is from my country!” he said. “And that’s always interesting when that happens.”
Abed’s Molokhiya Recipe (Courtesy of EPP Website)
Molokhiya leaves – roughly 3-4 cups, finely chopped
Olive oil (or butter) – 2 tbsp
Jalapeno – 1 tbsp finely chopped
Onions – 1 small onion – chopped finely
Beef – ground? 1 lb?
Ginger – small nub finely chopped
Garlic – 3 cloves finely chopped
Parsley – finely chopped for serving
Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a large pan.
Add the garlic, jalapeno, and onions and sauté till golden brown.
Add 2 cups water for every cup of finely chopped molokhiya
Bring to the boil then turn down to simmer.
Simmer for 45 mins – one hour.
Saute the beef and garlic with the remaining oil until browned nicely and cooked through.
Add it to the molokhiya soup, and simmer for a further 10-15 minutes.
Add salt to taste.
Serve over rice with parsley sprinkled on top