The Lost Arabs of Marseille: Food, Family, and France

In his timely Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831 (2011), Ian Coller writes of the Arab families associated with Ya’qub Hanna, an Egyptian, a Copt and first non-French general who’d served with  Napoleon Bonaparte in his military campaigns in Egypt. The cover, I believe, was chosen to highlight the idea of the Arab “Other.” The artist, Anne Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson (1767 – 1824) titled it “Portrait of Mustapha” and painted it in 1819.

These families ended up in Marseille. Forbidden for complex political reasons from continuing north to Paris, a restriction later lifted, they attempted to make the best of their lives in a strange country. Pensions awarded for service to the State enabled them to do so, but also reinforced their isolation and insularity, their continued identification as Arabs. In other words, the recent influx of immigrants from France’s former North African colonies represents a continuum of a process that has been ongoing for a long time. And the roots of today’s racial and cultural clashes can be seen in the events described in Coller’s book.

Scarce as dietary information is, Coller includes a few sentences, based on work done by French historian Georges Reynaud in 1866 and correspondence found in archives:

… they cultivated molokhiyya [Corchorus olitorus], a favorite green vegetable of the Middle East, which they dried and sent to their compatriots in Melun [where a military squadron called “Mameluks” served in the French army] and Paris. Their letters are filled with details of other foods they were sending from Marseille – dried fish (batarekh) and coconuts, olives, and dates.

In referring to the coconuts, Coller emphasizes the ways in which the immigrants negotiated with power, and hence survival, in a foreign land. Like many foodstuffs, coconuts played a subliminal role in the intrigue to “make it” and bring family and friends along to greater prosperity and social standing.

Mikha’il Sabbagh, who lived in Paris, wrote to his friends in Marseille, including Francois Naydorff, asking them to procure some coconuts for him. His purpose? To throw a gala party to welcome in the New Year of 1810. And to impress the movers and shakers in the capitol. Of course, people in Marseille like Naydorff wanted to weave together some networks to further their own agendas. As Coller states, “They [coconuts] were a symbol of ambition and aspiration.”

The problem? The British blockade of the Caribbean and France’s ports, thanks to the ongoing Napoleonic Wars. Getting a coconut through the lines and onto French tables would almost require a crack Seal Team to succeed.

But somehow Naydorff found nine coconuts. When he cracked open one to test it, he found the interior somewhat yellow, but still up to the task of wowing the guests at Saddagh’s party. He wrote:

I left the other eight coconuts whole because in France people consider the flesh inside less valuable than the shell, which they use for hunting goblets.

We don’t learn how the party turned out. But living in Paris conferred status

Molokhiyya still spices and thickens various dishes, particularly in Egypt. Here’s a recipe that doesn’t include tomatoes. It comes from Paula Wolfert, via Nora George, author of Nora’s Recipes from Egypt, based on her mother’s recipe notebook, handwritten in Arabic. Note that it is a very time-consuming dish. Go to Paula’s site to read the delightful story she tells of eating this dish with Nora.

Chicken with Molokhiyya

Serves 4

2 pounds chicken parts, preferably legs and thighs
1 small onion, quartered
Spice packet: 1 stick cinnamon, 1/4 tsp.mastic, 1 tsp. peppercorns and 3 cardamom pods wrapped in cheesecloth
1 tsp. salt
6 cups water
Pinch each of sumac and dried thyme
Olive oil

Onion-Cinnamon-Vinegar Dressing:

1 cup cider vinegar
½ cup finely chopped red onion
Pinch of ground cinnamon
1 Tb. butter
1 Tb. crushed garlic
1 tsp. salt
2 Tb. ground coriander

1 frozen 14-oz. package molokhiyya imported from Egypt(available at Middle Eastern grocers)


2 pita breads, cut into triangles and toasted until brown in the oven
2 cups freshly cooked white rice

Put the chicken, onion, spice packet, and 1 tsp. salt in a 4-quart casserole. Add 6 cups water and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for about 45 minutes, skimming foam and scum off the top from time to time. Remove the chicken to a greased baking dish, sprinkle with a pinch of sumac and thyme; moisten with 1/4 cup broth and keep covered with a foil tent. Refrigerate.

About 1-1/2 hours before serving, preheat the oven to 425 F degrees.

Strain the chicken broth; discard the fat, measure the broth and add more water if necessary to make 4 cups. Return to the saucepan and bring to the boil. In a skillet heat the butter to sizzling, add the garlic, 1 tsp. salt, and coriander and fry, stirring, until the texture is sandy and brown in color, but not burnt. Add to the boiling broth and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes.

An hour before mealtime, bring soup to a boil, add frozen molokhiyya and cook uncovered over medium heat until it completely defrosts, without excessivestirring. (If using fresh or dried molokhiya, see “Notes to the Cook” below.) Makes about 3 cups sauce. Meanwhile, set the chicken in the oven to brown. Make the onion-vinegar-cinnamon dressing and let stand 30 minutes.

To serve in layers in individual cereal bowls: place toasted pocket bread triangle on the bottom; add a few spoonfuls of plain rice, the chicken, a ladleful of sauce and top with a spoonful of the onion-vinegar-cinnamon dressing.

Notes to the Cook: One-half pound dried molokhiyya can be substituted for fresh or frozen: rub the leaves between hands until finely crushed. Forty minutes before serving, rinse quickly in a strainer, drain, soak in enough hot broth to cover for half an hour, then add to the boiling soup and cook uncovered for about 10 minutes.

If using fresh molokhiyya: Rinse and carefully dry. Use a mezzaluna or half-moon chopper to finely chop then set aside until ready to add the last 10 minutes. Don’t worry if it feels a little slimy to the touch. (A food processor can be used for the chopping.) Add the fresh molokhiyya to the boiling soup, immediately reduce heat and cook, uncovered, (to retain its green color) for 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from the heat the moment it begins to boil.

Other names for molokhiyya include jute mallow, Jew’s mallow, bush okra, long-fruited jute, Spanish okra, tossa jute, tussa jute, nalta jute, and West African okra. There are at least 18 different ways to transliterate the word from the Arabic  ملوخية:
Moulokheyya, Mulukheyya, Moolookhieh, Mouloukhia, Mloukhia, Melokiyah, Meloukhia, Melokiyah, Milookhia, Milookhiyya, M’Loukhia, Molohia, Molokhiya, Molokhiyya, 
Molukhyia, Mulukhia, Mulukhiya, and Mulukhiyah.

For more on the scientific aspects of molokhiyya, see the entry at Purdue’s New Crops Website,  Corchorus olitorius L. , and also the one at Plants for a Future.

© 2011 C. Bertelsen

8 thoughts on “The Lost Arabs of Marseille: Food, Family, and France

  1. Very nice, Ian I am looking forward to read your book as soon as possible, So interesting thing.

  2. Very interesting story–I’m sure there are at least two or three novels contained in this. I thought you might be interested in the melokhia that I wrote about for Ed Behr’s Art of Eating, after a visit to Egypt several years ago. This melokhia was made by a woman in Luxor and it did include tomatoes as well as rice. The main ingredient was rabbit, but there were also whole little pigeons stuffed with frik (green wheat that has been dried over a smoky fire). Apart from the rice and tomatoes, the whole thing had a decidedly pharaonic flavor to it. I’m posting the piece on my web site,, so anyone interested can read the whole thing.
    Nancy Jenkins

  3. Hi Cynthia,
    What a wonderful post! I loved the story of the coconuts, which turned up in the Arabic correspondence, and I am absolutely delighted to see your comments!! A big thank you from the author!

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