A virtual trip to ancient Egypt via story of a fascinating and delicious dish that has been eaten since the days of the pyramids.
Egypt Research Project
Getting resourceful for a 3rd grade research project in the time of COVID-19 quarantine, my daughter not only perused our bookshelves and huge stack of old National Geographic magazines, she also looked through our cookbook collection. Hoping to learn a bit about Egyptian culinary traditions, and maybe finding an easy dish she could make to give her a literal taste of the country. she struck gold in the “New Book of Middle Eastern Food” by Claudia Roden, finding the backstory and recipe for Melokheya. My daughter was excited to report she had not only found one of the national dishes of Egypt, but that it’s as old the pyramids.
You don’t need to be doing a research project to enjoy this easy, flavorful and versatile dish that will please even the pickiest eaters (via the deconstructed option, most likely).
And for those of us still in home/online schooling mode, this virtual trip to ancient Egypt is not only fun, and delicious; it’s a fabulous multiplier. In the time it takes to cook, enjoy eating and talking about it, you’ve covered social studies, geography, history, math (cooking measurements!), English, spelling, music… and you’ve spent time together. None of us should be stressed about additional extra screen time right now, but we definitely shouldn’t be stressed about it after this fun dinner.
Enjoy your trip to ancient Egypt!
My daughter was familiar with Claudia Roden’s “New Book of Middle Eastern Food” because she’s used recipe for pita, and also helped me with plenty of others. Curious about Egyptian culinary traditions, she fount Egypt’s most popular national dish: Melokheya. It’s reported to be portrayed in paintings on tomb walls.
Claudia writes that the soup was eaten twice a day: the women would make it at home then carry it into the field in large pots for the midday meal of=the men working in the fields. In the evening, the men would return to enjoy it a second time at dusk.
The dish gets its name from the green leafy vegetable of the same name. Melokeheya is described to posses as mucilaginous (There’s your spelling bee word! And also a fun introduction to etymology for booger-loving kids) and glutinous quality.
You can find it in the freezer of middle eastern grocers (Or on Mercato. No relationship; just referencing.), but we only had spinach (quarantine!) and it worked well and was delicious.
As with many dishes with unique names in their native language, when translated into other languages, we get many versions of the spelling. In the book it is melokheya, but Google insisted on molokhia, and Wikipedia had mulukhiyah.
A Novel Playlist
Ok, enough novelty! Wink, wink.
You’ll find this playlist has a ton of well-known and loved Egyptian musicians on it, as well as some western numbers. They are all part of the story told in the novel. To find out more, and to continue your Egypt exploration, head over to the portrait we made for that novel set in Cairo at the time of the Arab Spring.
Connecting the Dots
What we found the most interesting is the method. In some ways, melokheya just one more variation on a classic chicken soup (of which we already have two variations on this site – Yemeni and Israeli – both of which are stuck in quarantine as they transition from the old site!).
But melokheya has extra flair added at the end, in the form of takleya, which is garlic and spices tempered in hot oil. Much like the tadka or tarka (or chaunk) we are familiar with in our Indian cooking, like the tadka added to tomato pappu.
I’ve also read that in Egypt, the takleya would be made using samna or clarified butter; not unlike the ghee used in tadkas of Indian cuisine. Just one more example of how connected our cuisines are, across continents and over thousands of years.