Every year, like many in Israel, Jerusalem’s veteran Jewish families gather for a nature outing to celebrate Independence Day. A part of a special tradition, they forage for wild mallow with which they later cook a simple green soup, reminiscent of the staple that sustained them during the siege of the city in 1948.
In November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted to implement a plan to partition the British Mandate of Palestine into an Arab state, a Jewish state, and the City of Jerusalem. Jewish communities around the world rejoiced, while the Arab world reacted with fury.
The Battle for Jerusalem began in December of 1947 and the Arab Legion and Arab irregular forces blockaded the 100,000 Jews living in Jerusalem. The only road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem became a death trap for Jewish vehicles, which were ambushed by Arab forces. Access to the city from the coastal plain was blocked at Latrun and Sha’ar HaGai. Jerusalem was under siege.
By March, food supplies had decreased to the point that rationing was implemented by the Jerusalem Emergency Committee. It is at this point that an ancient Biblical staple came to the rescue.
First mentioned in Job 6:6, malva nicaeensis, or bull mallow, grows with the first winter rains in October. Like the dandelion, mallow is a very hardy plant that flourishes almost anywhere. In Jerusalem you can find it growing out of sidewalks, retaining walls, and on any untended patch of earth. The hills surrounding Jerusalem are carpeted with this weed and its roots burrow deep into the earth in search of water. By December, the mallow can reach a height of 5 feet with leaves growing up to a 9-inch diameter.
The leaves, stems, fruits, and seeds of the mallow are all edible and may be eaten raw. Its small round fruits are covered with a parchment-like peel. They are crunchy, with a slightly radish-like neutral flavor. Their shape resembles a rounded loaf of bread, which is why the name of the plant in Arabic is khubez, derived from the word khubz, which means bread. The leaves taste a bit like spinach.
As food supplies dwindled, Jerusalem residents did all they could to survive. And so the besieged Jews picked this ancient weed, which is surprisingly rich in iron, calcium, and vitamin C. With it, the residents of Jerusalem prepared a nutritious, filling soup, referred to by Jerusalemites to this day by its Arabic name, khubez soup.
1 pound mallow leaves
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, minced
1 head of garlic, peeled and minced
8 cups water
Wash the mallow leaves thoroughly and chop them.
Heat the olive oil in a heavy pot. Sautee the onion and garlic and add mallow leaves.
Cook the leaves until wilted.
Add the water, and bring to a boil.
Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Simmer for 20 minutes.
Serve with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.