Although I haven’t found common mallow to be particularly versatile (which may be down to me not being imaginative in my cooking of it), this plant is close to my heart, as it gives me an opportunity to impress my mother-out-law: it turns out that common mallow, a familiar wayside and field edge plant in the UK, can be happily substituted for Molokhia, the key ingredient in a famous Middle Eastern dish of the same name (I know it in its Palestinian incarnation).
Remarkably, it seems that the two plants are not related – at least, their Latin names of Corchorus olitorius (molokhia) and Malva sylvestris suggest not, as does the difference in their flowers: the first has small yellow blooms, the plant we find here has distinctive, streaked, purple petals (not pictured above, as it’s not yet in flower). And yet, they have a very similar taste and, crucially for the making of the molokhia dish, both have an okra-like, mucilaginous sliminess.
John Wright reports that this slight viscosity once gave it an aloe vera-like reputation as a soothing plant to apply to burns, swellings and even dandruff. There’s also a suggestion that the common thinking that we should apply dock leaves to nettle stings may be a massive collective misapprehension: common mallow was once known as round dock, and it may be that confusion has misdirected us to dock leaves. I haven’t yet tried rubbing common mallow on a nettle sting – if you do, I’d love to hear whether you find it effective. Roger Phillips suggests that the name developed from Old English ‘malwe’, meaning soft; I’m intrigued by the similarity in name of mallow and molokhia – there are many English words with roots in Arabic, but it may just be a cosmic coincidence.
Common mallow was a frequent forage of mine in London, and I’m glad to find it here in Kent, too. It’s easy to spot once you know it, even before its lovely flowers appear, its leaves suggesting a fully-opened fan (not unlike geranium leaves), the leaf edges slightly ragged. If you’re still unsure, give a leaf a little tug with both hands to pull it tight: it should have a slight elasticity and seem to stretch very slightly. There’s also a little purplish spot at the centre of the leaf:
That elasticity should tell you also that it’s a good time to pick it. However, you may find the leaves pockmarked with little holes: something besides me enjoys this plant, too. The holes don’t bother me too much unless the leaf is absolutely riddled, or if it seems that insect eggs have been laid, but do look for the freshest leaves that still have a nice verdant sheen to them if possible. And if they seem past it, just wait a few months, as common mallow gets a second wind later in the year, when it seems to regain its freshness.
To make molokhia the dish is quite simple and well worth doing. Usually it would be served with chicken or lamb. For a vegetarian version, I recommend throwing in one big flat mushroom, chopped small, to get that meaty, umami taste. Using cumin seeds along with the coriander seeds probably helps with this, too. There are many versions from across the Middle East, but here’s what I do, which I think is reasonably close to the Palestinian version:
First chop your mallow leaves finely, put in a saucepan and add a small amount of stock – certainly nowhere near enough to cover the leaves, as these will settle and absorb the stock over the 20 minutes you will simmer it. (You want to end up with a soggy, slightly soupy concoction with a bit of fluid.) I’d also add your mushroom at this stage, or perhaps 5 or 10 minutes in. Add a few bay leaves, too. Put your rice on to cook separately now.
With 5 minutes or so to go, heat oil in a frying pan and fry together chopped garlic, coriander seeds and cumin seeds. When they begin to brown, and if the pot of mallow is ready, tip the garlic and spices in, stir to combine, add a very enthusiastic squeeze of lemon and serve on the rice, with toasted khubez (pitta bread). Top with toasted pine nuts.
Here’s what mine looked like the other day (pictured here with steamed bulrush, on which more soon).