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Forklore: Let's get mallow

December 18, 2011 |  7:00 am

Forklore sigMauve and gunnysacks, what's the connection? Food, of course.

The faded purple shade known as mauve comes from the French form of the word "mallow" and refers to the blossoms of one or another of the many plants that have been known as mallows. There are edible mallows belonging to the botanical family Malvaceae. Abelmoschus esculentus is okra. Hibiscus sabdariffa gives us a red flower whose petals are brewed into tea, known as jamaica in Spanish and Red Zinger in English. Althaea officinalis is the marsh mallow that was part of the original recipe for marshmallows.

But various plants not in the Malvacea family have also been called mallows, and one in particular has a real claim to the name: Corchorus olitorius, known in English as Jew's mallow. Its Arabic name, mulukhiyah, is related to the Hebrew malluah . . . which is the word that entered Latin as malva. If botanists don't consider C. olitorius a mallow, they ought to explain exactly what plant has a better claim to the name.

Its leaves are very popular in Egypt, where they're considered the national vegetable. Mulukhiyah is an acquired taste -- many non-Egyptians find it bland and gluey -- but stewed mulukhiyah is the food Egyptians get most homesick for.

Curiously, C. olitorius, along with C. capsularis (grown mostly in Bengal), is also the source of the fiber known as jute, which is made into rope and burlap.

-- Charles Perry

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