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The unexplained fears of making Mulukhiyah in exile

Opinion Diversity Arab Migrants

Friday 17 March 202305:40 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية:

الخوف من الملوخية!


I used to think for many years that I was a complete failure at cooking, but when the long days of Istanbul forced me into the kitchen, I found that I wasn’t a failure at all. I made a tray of "Kofta with tahini" (ground meat in tahini sauce) that was very similar to the one my mother makes. Another time, I had to stack the potato and eggplant slices carefully in the tray after frying them, place the minced meat on top of them, and then finally pour the liquid mixture on top of everything, resulting in a potato and eggplant tray that I've never tasted like in my life.

It didn't stop there, but rather extended to sweets and desserts. For the first time in my life, I dared/was forced to make "basbousa" (syrup-soaked semolina cake), after having gotten used to a certain taste, my mother was always able to replicate it effortlessly; I had to try the taste of my own basbousa. Although my first couple of tries failed, it later turned out well, according to the testimony of friends. I did all that, and tried many other dishes, but after a year of getting used to being in the kitchen, I still don't have the courage to cook mulukhiyah even once!

My mother's charming dinner table

Back home, in little Palestine (the Gaza Strip), I never once thought about the origin of the mulukhiyah, and I wouldn’t have accepted any claim that it isn’t an authentic Palestinian dish. I had linked it in my memory to all Palestinian dining tables, starting with the floor mat that my great grandparents used to lay out in the open fields of Khan Yunis and serve mulukhiyah on top of it, a dish associated with royalty, kings and people of high status, all the way to my mother's dinner table in our kitchen. This cancels out, for me at least, the historical information that links mulukhiyah to the ancient Egyptians (pharaohs), as whoever lays eyes on my mother's dinner table when she makes mulukhiyah will be completely convinced that it was never associated with the people of the Nile, but rather with the Palestinians who spent half their lives gazing out at the waves of the Mediterranean as they ebb and flow.

Back home, in little Palestine (the Gaza Strip), I never once thought about the origin of the mulukhiyah, and I wouldn’t have accepted any claim that it isn’t an authentic Palestinian dish

Despite my mother's genius skills in making mulukhiyah, she never tried cooking it with rabbit meat, for example, as is customary in Egypt. She often prepared it using white meat, i.e. chicken and turkey, and this may have been a major reason why I preferred mulukhiyah made with white meat over red meat, i.e. veal and lamb. Therefore, whoever sees my mother's dining table and sees how her mulukhiyah slowly slides off the edges of my spoon, will realize that it is not only a Palestinian dish, but rather my mother's specialty dish.

Fear of memories

In terms of memory and what it stores, I never imagined that I would ever have memories associated with mulukhiyah! So, when its delicious taste didn’t reach my tongue for a long time, I realized that it was associated with very good memories in my mind, and could be built upon to create a whole house of mulukhiyah/love. Like any other Palestinian, I remembered the first day of Ramadan of every year, and how this magical green dish garnishes the table in the presence of the family. The first bite of food of any Palestinian on his/her first day of fasting, can only come from a plate of mulukhiyah. It is an unspoken rule here, so much so that if a person walks the alleys of the Khan Younis Camp an hour before the Maghrib call to prayer on the first day of Ramadan, all they can smell is the scent of mulukhiyah coming from every window, alley and doorway.

My mother’s mulukhiyah is the beginning and happy ending of all delicious stories

With my growing longing for mulukhiyah in recent days, even after a year and a month had passed without me tasting it, I could still clearly recall the sound of my mother's laughter as I’d pretend to make a false "gasp" when she’d put the garlic roasted in oil on top of it, imitating the Egyptian tv shows that made me believe that this gasp is an important step of making this dish.

My mother was never convinced by the importance of this gasp, and I could hear her say "bismillah" instead, following it with words of praise and glorification, as if she were praying in reverence. Who knows, maybe even making food needs reverence, and that’s the reason for its amazing taste, that made me unable to try my hand at cooking mulukhiyah even once for more than a year... Or maybe it’s the memories, and that’s why I can say that it is the memories that made me not dare try it.

Two directions, one road

I never once imagined that the mulukhiyah in the Syrian cuisine would be prepared in a way different from the Palestinian cuisine, as I always imagined the same mulukhiyah dish even if it was prepared in the farthest corner of the world. So, when my Syrian colleague happily introduced me to Syrian mulukhiyah and smiled, I had the strongest urge to steer clear and not try the way it tastes; how can this dish be violated like that and cooked differently? It was piled in front of me on the plate like broken spaghetti sticks, and the smell of something old was coming out of it. After a few minutes of contemplating against it, I finally tasted it, and that is when I made a great discovery, which is that the taste of Syrian mulukhiyah is similar to going up a mountain, while the Palestinian mulukhiyah tastes like descending it.

Syrian cuisine relies on dried mulukhiyah leaves, while the Palestinian one – my mother's in particular – relies on green leaves that the whole family gathers to pick. That is why Syrian mulukhiyah is dry and smells very old. Syrians rely mainly on lemons when eating it, as squeezing lemons on top of the dish is an essential part, and I did just that in good spirits when I tried it for the first time, even though I have never put lemon juice on this dish during my entire life, and I have never reconciled with the Palestinians who add it when eating the dish. My experience with Syrian mulukhiyah left me in a strange state of longing for the taste I had gotten used to, but I didn't have the courage to make my own mulukhiyah for an entire year.

Mulukhiyah is very special in the life of Palestinians, and in my own life. I attribute this to the popular culture that linked it to the start of the month of Ramadan, and to family gatherings following separation, and to the bombing that almost never ends

A losing/winning Palestinian bet

After I was only met with dead ends, I had no choice but to enlist the help of my friend to taste the mulukhiyah the way I was used to, and the way I’ve always felt it tastes like gliding smoothly from the top of a mountain. Indeed, my friend was kind enough to invite me over to taste the royal dish for the first time after a year and a month of not tasting it. I can easily say that every spoon I put in my mouth fed a multitude of memories that I almost completely forgot, as if I were a dry wasteland that had finally gotten water. This made me feel like it was the best mulukhiyah I ever had, even though it tasted so different from the one my mother makes.

This, in my opinion, is not only related to being crafty or skilled or good at preparing food, but also has to do with other reasons, such as where you eat, the people who eat with you, and the weather when the food travels on its usual path to the abdomen, as well as my sisters' laughter and heavy banter that’s light on the heart like a bird's wing.

Delicious stories always come to an end

Mulukhiyah is an extremely special dish in the life of the Palestinian, and in my own life, and I can attribute this to the popular culture that linked it to the start of the month of Ramadan, and to family gatherings following a long period of separation, and to the moments of bombing and escalation that almost never stop. With my mother's genius ability to make dishes worthy of the most famous Arab restaurants, the taste of the mulukhiyah she makes with her soft hands – sans the gasp – is stuck in my mind. And I could not, despite my repeated attempts to do so, enjoy any mulukhiyah dish other than my mother's, whether it’s cooked in the Palestinian or Syrian way. For this reason.. I can say that my mother’s mulukhiyah is the beginning and happy ending of all delicious stories.


* The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Raseef22

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