Monday 14 October 2013


I was down visiting the 't-laws over the w/e and was double happy because Dau.II was at a loose end in Cork and came East for lunch.  It's not true that I go visit only for the cooking, but that is certainly a carrot.  Yesterday we had mulokhia, or as wiki-an-tanka has it "Mulukhiyah, (ملوخية‎, mloukhiya, molokhia, molohiya, mulukhiyya, malukhiyah, or moroheiya)".  It doesn't sound too inviting for someone who grew up on 1950s comfort food (toast, chicken pie, roast potatoes and fish-fingers for preference - but not all at once):  a thick mucilaginous broth often described as slimy - therefore similar in its chemistry to okra.  If 'okra' makes you think of gumbo, catfish and Mardi Gras you're lucky, because for me it triggers Georgia, swamps and Deliverance. And <folds arms> I <hunches shoulders> won't <purses lips> EAT IT.

Mulokhia is derived from the leaves of Corchorus spp. which was one of the original plants named by Linnaeus in his 1753 magnum opus Species Plantarum. He used an ancient Greek word κόρχορος which Aristotle may have used for the same species or may have referred to wild asparagus.  It is now obtainable, frozen and frequently fresh, in many of our multicultural shops including the wonderful emporium Spice World on the Waterford Quays.  But, back in the day, this was one of the items that was always brought back in your case if you went to visit Nigeria.  When they were children, The Beloved's family used to call the resulting stew "hedge-soup", lick the bowl and ask for more.  It's good stuff, served with boiled chicken and rice, once you lay your cultural baggage aside and try it.

Being a trained researcher is full of unexpected pleasures.  I've been eating mulokhia on and off for nearly 40 years and never thought to ask where it comes from ("hedges, Bob").  It turns out that using Corchorus leaves for cooking is a thrifty by-product because the plant is mainly grown for its fibre. Jute is a bit coarse but much easier on the planet than cotton. And we get through a lot of the stuff - 3 million tons are produced annually, more than half from Bangladesh and 40% from India.  The plants are first treated by retting.  Exactly the same process is used in the production of flax (Linum usitatissimum) in Ireland. Retting is a fermentation process that encourages bacteria to work efficiently for us rather than using mills, steam, electricity or 'chemicals'.  The plants are harvested, tied in bundles and immersed in water. After several days, and good judgment as to the right moment, the softened parts are scraped off and discarded and the fibres taken out for further processing. Burlap, hessian and gunny are all names for jute-fibre and it's mainly used in sacking, carpets and linoleum.  In all these places it is being inched out of the market by products from the petro-chemical industry.

A couple of years ago when I was still working in Dublin, there was a delivery of a couple of dozen rather swish arm-chairs upholstered in luxurious skivertex.  To protect this wholly artificial covering, each chair was wrapped in a wholly artificial woven material.  I asked if I could take this stuff off home because it looked ideal for the baling of sheep-fleece.  I put it to such good use, but when I came to move the fleece bundles for market a few months later, this wholly artificial material frittered to dust in my hands.  It had undergone photo-degradation and I had to spend some time sweeping up the mess and picking the shards out of my lovely wool.  Much better to use jute: bio-degradable, supports the economy of one our poorest nations and makes a very mucilaginous soup.


  1. I've heard the term retting before...used in the traditional rope and twine making era and included hemp as well as the natural fibres above, hard work to keep same ropes from rotting, but a lovely smell, particularly as the nets and rope tended to be treated with oil (linseed) to try to stretch the lifespan. Mucilaginous is not a term I heard before, and I am struggling to think of any context I could use it in...something to go with a bad cough?

  2. Cough, soup. Soup, cough. And the lads on the Change Islands used to treat their nets with boiled spruce extract. A sort of creosote, I guess.