Pauls Toutonghi is a first-generation American. He has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, and his writing has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Zoetrope, One Story, and the Boston Review. His newest book, Evel Knievel Days, goes on sale July 17th, 2012. He lives in Brooklyn.
This is what I remember, more than anything else: My grandmother’s mortar and pestle—the one in which she’d grind garlic or grains or spices. It was white marble, and inlaid with silvery veins of iron oxide. The word marble comes from the Greek root marmaros, or shining stone; I remember the way that my grandmother’s mortar and pestle shone on the kitchen counter, brighter than even the white paint of the woodwork behind the sink.
When my grandmother died in 1990, the mortar and pestle disappeared. But if I close my eyes I can see it—so astonishingly clear in my memory, summoned from more than two decades ago. I see Grandma Lorice cupping the pestle in her wrinkled, long fingers—as they methodically pulverize the coriander and the garlic for mulukhiyya, the ubiquitous soup of my childhood.
Lorice Toutonghi was born in Beirut but settled in Cairo. She raised seven children in Egypt—including my father, who was fourteen when he left in 1946. I ate her cooking for many years with eagerness and joy: the stuffed grape leaves, the ful medames, the hummus, the baba ghanouj, the rosewater baklava. But nothing was more delicious, or beloved, in my family, than her salty, viscous green soup—the national soup of Egypt—mulukhiyya.
There is, of course, no recipe. My grandmother, like seemingly every immigrant grandmother in the history of America, cooked entirely by feeling. Fortunately, my dad, who is now eighty, still remembers how she made the soup. And so, when I began to write Evel Knievel Days—a book with grandma’s unwritten recipes at its heart—we started experimenting with a number of different versions.
The one we settled on is—to my taste—delicious. Is it a perfectly written recipe? Of course not. I can’t stress this enough: My dad and I are not professionals! (Unless eating is a profession.) But would professionalism be in the spirit of this dish—which was cooked, for so many years, by taste, with love, for family? Not especially. And so: By taste, with love, for family, from our kitchen to yours.
Toutonghi Family Mulukhiyya Recipe
2 loaves pita bread
2 lbs chicken
3 yellow onions
6 garlic cloves
4 tbsp coriander
1 lb mulukhiyya
2 cups long grain rice
Salt and pepper (to taste)
1 cup lemon juice
Heat bread in oven at 350 degrees until it is just crisp. Set aside. Keep warm. Boil chicken in large pot. Once chicken is cooked, transfer to a bowl and let cool down. Break chicken into bite-sized pieces. Set aside, reserving the broth.
Chop up 2 onions and the garlic and sautée in olive oil until onions have turned visibly yellow. Add coriander and stir. Coriander will dry up the mixture substantially.
Bring the broth back to a boil and add the onions, garlic, and coriander. Then add the chicken and the salt and pepper, stirring occasionally.
Let simmer for two hours.
Add the mulukhiyya, making sure the leaves are finely chopped!. Minced jute leaves can be tricky to find—but any Middle Eastern specialty store should have them.
Let this mixture simmer. This is the broth of the soup.
Boil the rice. Set aside.
Chop up the remaining onion and combine it in a serving bowl with the lemon juice.
Use shallow bowls to serve. Mulukhiyya is a layered soup. First layer: Toasted bread. Second layer: Bite-sized chicken. Third layer: Rice. Fourth layer: Broth. Fifth layer: Lemon-and-onion mixture, as garnish.
Enjoy! This is the national soup of Egypt! Songs have been written about it; poems are recited about it; it’s a true taste of the country.