I’ve been trying to chase down this recipe for months now. Though I ate it back in 2010 for the first time during Christmas dinner in Cairo. I thought it was molokhia, a green soup made from the fresh leaves of the molokhia plant. Not at all, though the spicing is similar.
I was told it was ‘olass. And that it is normally eaten on special occasions, like Christmas. But after some research between both sides of the family, and my Arabic tutor, turns out everyone eats ‘olass all the time and its a favourite dish of most households.
We never had it at home. When I asked my mother the reason, without missing a beat she scrunched up her face and explained “I hate that dish, I never liked to eat it”. And hence a childhood deprived of taro root.
My aunt on the other hand reminisced with my father on this and said my grandmother made this dish often, but couldn’t remember how. My father had little recollection of liking or disliking it, which means it wasn’t a favourite, but it was tolerated as part of the usual repertoire of weekly meals. In his own words it’s good, but “it’s no molokhia”.
But what is it?
It’s taro root cut into chunks, boiled in water then thrown into a mix of swiss chard and spices.
It’s not a dish, however, that you’ll find in restaurants or on the streets. It’s really at home that this is eaten. And the prime time for this dish among Christian households is especially during epiphany, which comes at the end of Christmas. If you want to get into religion, it’s the time when Jesus was baptized, i.e. plunged under water for purification purposes. So the idea of eating taro, which has to be boiled in water before it’s edible (fun fact: raw taro contains calcium oxaltate, which will make your mouth go numb, so raw taro is in fact toxic), is representative of Jesus’s baptism. In fact there’s a little rhyme my aunt said would often be heard by children around that time of year: “aid el ghotass, yakul ‘olass” which literally translates into “at festival of epiphany, one eats taro”. Clever,
But taro is eaten in all households, regardless of religion. The root itself grows in Egypt after it spread via cultivation from its origins somewhere in India. Taro itself is a popular root found in many African dishes and with the trans-Atlantic slave trade, made its way into the Americas, where taro is also popular in many Caribbean and South American countries. The true name of taro is coloccasia, and in arabic ‘qulqass’. And then in Egypt, because we shorten words when possible, is known as ‘olass, or ‘ulass.
Swiss chard, or in arabic “salq” or sal’ in egyptian arabic, grounds the taro root to a tasty base. Swiss chard, is often referred to as ‘silverbeet’ or ‘whitebeet’ because it is related to the beet family. The Swiss adjective comes from a Swiss botanist who studied the plant.
But the plant itself is native to the southern Mediterranean region, namely Sicily, but according to articles I consulted, Aristotle apparently mentions it in his writing, so it has a place in ancient Greek history as well. Swiss chard likely found its way into Egypt via the Ancient Greeks or the Romans later on. Either way, the plant itself is not native to Egypt, but it thrives there now.
And after all my extensive research, it was my cousin (an amazing cook) who sent me THE recipe. It’s likely a mix of our family’s traditional one coupled with her ingenious additions.
So you’re in for a treat.
*Bear in mind that this recipe is using a chicken broth; but you can easily go fully vegetarian and use a vegetable-based one.
Total cooking time: 1.5 hours
Yield: four persons
1 head of Swiss chard
1 handful of fresh coriander leaves
1 handful of fresh dill
1 tablespoon of oil
5 cloves of garlic
2 teaspoons of ground coriander seed
1 tablespoon of butter
2 cups of broth (chicken/vegetable)
6. Chop up dill and fresh coriander
7. Chop up garlic
8. In a pan, add oil and sauté half the amount of chopped garlic along with all of the Swiss chard, dill and fresh coriander
8. Add a bit of salt to flavour
9. Continue stirring greens until they are soft and have significantly reduced in size
10. Take off heat
11. In a separate pan, add ground coriander and dry roast it until it starts to change colour
12. Take off heat and add butter and remaining garlic
13. Continue to stir on low heat until the coriander/garlic mix has absorbed all the butter.
18. Consistency should be thick soup
19. Cook slowly on low heat and add cooked taro and taqliya mix
20. Leave to cook on low heat for 10 minutes (do not let it boil)
21. Serve with rice