The ancient Egyptians swore by it for its aphrodisiac qualities. Five thousand years later, the Japanese and South Koreans are making it into green tea, tofu and even ice cream.
This is molokia, a green vegetable of the jute or mallow family, which is one of Egypt's most traditional dishes. Perhaps its reputation as an Old Kingdom viagra stems from its amazing growth- under hot conditions such as the Nile delta in summer it can grow up to 25cm per day. Once harvested it is made into a green soup that almost all Egyptians find very delicious. It makes expatriate Egyptians nostalgic at just the mention of it. Sam Habib, an Egyptian born Australian likens preparing molokia to 'the smell of Cairo on a Friday."
Others claim its glutinous, sticky texture and garlicky smell make it a bit of an acquired taste. Many Egyptians may take this view as an insult just as the French would sniff at people ridiculing their traditional snail dishes or smelly cheeses.
The Japanese and Koreans value its amazing protein and folic acid levels- the highest for any green leaf vegetable-it also contains more iron and calcium and magnesium, all essential minerals increasingly hard to acquire in factory farmed spinach and broccoli.
Health conscious Koreans and Japanese, who write it ‘morokeiya’ make it into a savory green tea, a luminous green buckwheat noodle, soya tofu, and a green ice cream that sells alongside other delicacies such as a sorbet made from fresh eels.
The Molokia fad has been growing, especially in the Far East, for the last ten years, even promprting morokhia tourism from Japan to Egypt. " I came to see the mysterious Egyptian pyramids and to eat the health giving Morokeiya", Kawabata Iku san, a Japanese tourist from Saitama province visiting Egypt said.
Molokia, though native to Egypt, long ago spread to the Levant.
"Our way of making molokia is better than the Egyptian," says a Palestinian woman proudly explaining the superiority of Levantine-style molokia.
"Palestinians, Lebanese and Syrians cook molokia as leaves in the same way spinach is made, which takes away the glutinous, slimy taste and texture of the soup."
Egyptians and Levantines are well known for their heated rivalry over who produces better soap operas, who has the better Arabic dialect and whose molokia is tastier.
Egyptian expatriates are now relieved that they no longer deprived of the traditional delicacy. In the past, molokia was not easily obtainable in many countries. Now, shops in cities as far as Los Angeles and Sydney offer frozen molokia.
Egyptians living in Japan and South Korea are even better off as fresh molokia can be purchased for the green vegetable grown in both countries. However, Usama Saleh, who has lived in Tokyo for five years claims that Japanese molokia, “like everything in Japan, has less smell and taste than the Egyptian vegetable.”
Stories abound about the origin of the traditional molokia dish but some may be apocryphal.
It is claimed there are depictions of preparation of mallow leaves on ancient Egyptian tomb walls.
"The Stela of Ahmose depicts Molokhia being prepared. It is also mentioned by Pliny as a favourite dish," says Dr Nevine Medhat, an Egyptologist.
The modern name stems, according to legend, from the time an Arab king was seriously ill and a doctor made a soup with molokia and cured the king. Since then, people call this soup "King's soup" or molokia, from the Arabic for king: moloch. More earthy accounts suggest it is called after the king because it will make a male lover feel like a king!
One fact is certain, molokia was banned by King al-Hakim Biamr Allah in the 11 th century. Some say the deeply eccentric ruler, aware of the aphrodisiac qualities of molokia, sought to prevent women and men from a possible life of debauchery.